A subjective and unscientific analysis of the 100 best opening lines in fiction

When recently perusing the American Book Review’s fascinating list of their 100 best opening lines of novels – which you can see here – I wondered how many of the masters represented here had got away with things that we non-masters debate in our writers’ groups and forums, in terms of what makes a good opening line.

In other words, can we use a list of the greatest opening lines – which is in itself subjective, of course – to learn something about what works and what doesn’t, when pondering our own opening lines?

And so, here is my subjective and unscientific analysis, achieved via the complex methodology of (i) thinking of things I’ve discussed with fellow writers about opening lines, and (ii) counting up how many times those things appear in this list.

And the results are as follows:

  • 38 of the lines included here (ie, just a notch over one third) include the name of the protagonist or another character;
  • Only 8 of the entries in the list describe the weather in one way or another; and
  • None of the best opening lines involve a character waking up from sleep and/or a dream and/or gazing into the mirror and wondering what the new day holds.

Hence, my unscientific conclusion is, if you want your opening line to be great, give us the name of your protagonist if you must, but it’s better to leave that until a little later, by a factor of about two to one. It’s definitely not a good idea to describe the weather, and you really don’t want to be doing any of that waking up stuff.

Of course, all these lines – well, most of them – have something much more important in common. They are all designed, in one way or another, to hook you with something interesting that makes you want to find out what’s going on. More than that, the best openers – imho – make you feel that, whilst you’ve just started the book, you have in another sense been dropped right into the middle of it.

My personal favorite has always been “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”, a spectacular and rambling opener that feels even more relevant today than when it was first published in 1859.

I also love the brilliant first line of The Bell Jar – “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York” – despite the fact that it’s one of the eight in the list that describe the weather.

In the end, I suppose, the real fun of lists like this is arguing about what’s not included. Where for example is The Metamorphosis? Kafka makes an appearance in the list, but for The Trial. Perhaps the former is excluded by ABR because it’s a novella rather than a novel.

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” Now that’s a great opening line.

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