Are Opening Sentences the Most Important Sentence in Your Book?

It was a dark and stormy night…

Everyone knows that line. Everyone (or most people in the English-speaking world, at least), know several first sentences from various books or opening scenes from movies. Sometimes, it seems you can just tell when something is going to be good from its first page and the opening line has a lot to do with that.

“Call me Ishmael.”–Herman Melville: Moby-Dick (1851)

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” —Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice (1813)

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” —Franz Kafka: Metamorphosis (1915)

“All children, except one, grow up.”–J.M. Barrie: Peter Pan (1911)

Now, it might be cheating a little bit to use these because these stories are all well-read and very popular. Even if you haven’t read the book, you know about the story and you know that these are widely-considered very good literature.

But even if you didn’t like the stories, or you haven’t read them, I think it’s easy to appreciate the craft and skill that went into these lines

Except Moby-Dick, I never got that one. But we’ll get back to that…

I like Stephen King’s explanation the most: “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

I’ve read that opening lines should, ideally, do three things: introduce a character, give the reader a setting, and ask a question. Kafka certainly does that, but none of these other quotes do, and certainly many opening lines do not accomplish all three of those goals.

Most writing students have been told to start in the middle of a scene (especially an action scene), so that you put your reader right into the story. I think this is a bit of a cheat and more helpful for newer writers because the opening line is meant to persuade you to hear the story and it’s a little hard to make a single action scene resonate with the whole story.

But, it’s been done masterfully (and I open my first chapter with an argument between two main characters, so who am I to judge?).

I think the most important part of this all-important opening sentence is that you have to grab the reader’s attention. Like Stephen King says, you have to convince your reader they want to know more from that one sentence.

This is why I don’t get how “Call me Ishmael” is such a memorable line. I, admittedly, have not read the book but, with an opening line like that, I’m not really inspired to. All I know is there are two people and one of them is called Ishmael and seems to be a rather demanding fellow.

So I looked it up. And, apparently, it’s only one guy and he’s talking to the reader! “Call me Ishmael” then becomes much more interesting because it both requires the aid of the following paragraph to hook the reader but it tells you something about the narrator himself in the ultimate “Show, don’t tell” manner that I, as a reader, truly appreciate.

I mean, come on. Do you know how many books I’ve read that started with “I am…” or “My name is…”? TOO MANY. I hate that opening (unless you tack on something really gripping and twisted, like “My name is Melissa and I just watched my brother die.” or something like that).

Instead, Melville gives us a good look at Ishmael with his opening line and we didn’t really even know it. That’s pretty cool.

So, is the opening line the most important sentence in your book? I would think so. It may not be the most compelling or memorable line, and it may not be the most meaningful, but it gets your reader to pay attention. Many books with amazing opening lines may not have had the readership they did without those sentences. Without an opening line that convinces your reader to listen and learn more about your story, you won’t be able to tell the story at all.

You could have a paradigm-shifting, world-shattering, utterly profound sentence buried in the last third or in the climax or the resolution or wherever but if that reader doesn’t get past your first page, no one will ever know.

Opening lines of my current works include:

“I thought it was just a game.” – Devil’s Deck

“Gracie Grayson, age 11, recipient of the Perfect Attendance Award two years in a row, sat in the ER waiting room surrounded by people yet inescapably alone” – Meaningful Loss (desperately needs work, I know)

“After six trying weeks of keeping my grades up, my temper under control, and the orphanage keeper happy, I was all out of mercy.” SAAF (I can’t touch this until I finish the freakin’ draft so sorry if you hate it)

What opening lines have blown you away? What are some opening lines you’ve used in your writing? Leave a comment below!

Author: JA Goodsell

I write YA fantasy, blog about it, and then take my dog out for therapy. My current manuscript is INNATE, a story of two sisters caught up in a war between the gods. Find me on Twitter at @JAGoodsell or Instagram at books_and_dogs

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