One Liners

book_stack I read a lot, but not as much as most of you do. Most of you.

Despite my experience with novels and how they’re written – which, while not extensive, certainly isn’t too shabby – I had an interesting experience sort of recently which made me stop and take stock.

Of the elements which hook a reader (or, if you’re a wannabe published writer as I am, an agent or editor) is the opening line. It’s crucial to the success of your novel. A good hook set in a reader’s mouth can reel them in for the whole book, even if the writing isn’t stellar from that point forward. The hook is the element most writers hear they need to focus on, make it as impactful as they can.

I asked an acquaintance of mine – technically, my wife asked him – to read a piece I considered submitting for publication. My friend Sherri had given me her feedback already, and my loving spouse offered me a good deal of her input too. So I thought a tie-breaker would be in order. You know, just see what shakes out from having someone who’s not as familiar with my work look over my story and see what they thought.

I asked him to be brutally honest, and to his credit he was. Of all the very helpful things he pointed out, one of the things he liked least in the story was the beginning (he hated the ending too; not a good combination). Sherri told me the hook was adequate, but not great. Only my gentle wife said it was good.

So I looked at the opening. I haven’t revised it yet. Time is not my friend now, but I don’t want the critiques to go for naught. I will make the changes suggested and see where it goes. But the story, as I wrote it, got a rejection from the only place I submitted it. I could keep trying, but I think I want to improve it first and see what happens.

book_stack2Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about the opening hook of my stories lately, since that event actually, and it got me to thinking:

What’s the best opening line to a book you’ve ever seen? What line stuck with you, wedged into your mind so solidly you can’t forget it? What book’s opening sentence grabbed you so viciously and refused to let go until you finished the book? Can you remember it?

Not a big reader? What about movies? What’s the best opening scene to a movie you’ve ever seen? Or a song – what song has the best opening lyrics, the best first line, say, you’ve ever heard?

I’ll start, okay? This is, in my humble and mostly uneducated opinion, the best opening line in all of literature:

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

That’s from Stephen King’s The Dark Tower cycle, book one, The Gunslinger. It’s the opening line to the entire cycle, which goes for seven books.

How about you? What gets your vote?

Sound off, and let me know.


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18 thoughts on “One Liners

  1. I guess I should pay more attention to things like that. I don’t have one to add, so I’ll second you on the gunslinger opening. It’s a good one.

    Thanks for the mention. 🙂

    You’re more than welcome, hon. 🙂

  2. I don’t have a favourite first line, more like a favourite first paragraph. It’s from John Swartzwelder’s first novel The Time Machine Did It.

    That’s fine!

    “Frank Burly is my name. Okay, it’s not my name. I lied about that. My name is Edward R. Torgeson Jr. I changed it for the business. You’ve got to have a tough sounding name if you want people to hire you out of the phone book.”

    That’s … that’s pretty good. I like it. 🙂

    It goes on a bit more after that. But I gotta say. It caught my attention. And it made me laugh. The book is a comedy so why not start with a joke. Much like if a book is about vampires, I think a vampire should be sucking blood from a helpless person in the first paragraph. “The Count snuck up behind his helpless prey and sank his elongated fangs into the jugular.” Or if the book is a zombie book, “‘Ugh’ moaned the zombie as he staggered into the crowd, searching for brains on which to feast.” Or if the book is erotica…

    Well, yeah, there’s that. It’s not always the best way to hook someone though. Shocking, startling, maybe confusing … all good techniques beside just grabbing the reader with an awesome line. 🙂

    Yeah, I’m not gonna start writing porno in the comments of your blog. But you get the idea.

    Thanks; and yes, I get it. 🙂

    And on the topic of porno and erotic literature. Why is it frowned upon by women when they find their man with an issue of Playboy or whatever but the woman is allowed to read her romance novels. They’re basically the same thing, just that men are simpler folk who like pictures.

    I’ve wondered similar for years. 😉

    Maybe I should make that a topic on my blog. Meh. Can’t be bothered right to write that. I leave it here for now.

    No, no — be bothered. Do it!

  3. First, I want to say I have blogged against this be all and end all rock ’em sock ’em first line business. Especially when “the writing isn’t stellar from that point forward.”

    Link? Love to read it!

    But in the spirit of the season, I will contribute this classic, the opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House:

    “No live organism can continue for long to exist under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, had stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

    It’s another good one! That last line especially.

  4. There are so many, but for some reason, Ray Bradbury is sticking in my head…Fahrenheit 451…

    It was a pleasure to burn.

    It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.

    Another awesome one! Great choice!

  5. Yes, the opening line is to be given great respect and a dose preferential treatment, without being too obvious or you might be seen as schmoozing.

    Mmm … not sure I agree with that, Pyrit. I think a writer is doing what they’re supposed to do when they hit an opening line out of the park. I know it would work for me.

    However, it is true you can’t judge a book by it’s cover either.

    • Yes, hitting it out of the park usually means a home run. Sometimes, it means a smashed windshield.

      I guess so. I think a great first line can help a mediocre book; a bad one ruins a great book. That’s me.

      I think we can agree that obviously a great opening line does not a great book make.

      I remember a similar post on another blog; regarding “the hook” in one’s cover letter to a publisher. I cling to the hope that publishers, and readers, are smarter than fish.

      One can hope, right? 🙂

  6. Best opening line in literature:

    “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”…

    Sorry, Steve, I should’ve been more clear about best opening lines in FICTIVE literature. The Bible doesn’t fall in that category. And I don’t know if the Genesis 1:1 line is better than John 1:1, frankly. They both are pretty smashmouth. 😉

    Best opening song line: (song included)

    Thanks! 🙂

    • I should have realized you were looking for fictional opening lines. Forgive my ingorance. I read far too many books to have a favorite or one that will stand out to me.

      No big, Steve. The one you quoted is pretty doggone good. But I hold that Book in such esteem, it makes it unfair to us HUMAN authors. 😉 If one comes to you, don’t hesitate to come share! And, just wait for tomorrow’s post. You might have more luck with that one! 🙂

  7. Okay…time crunch until later today but here are two of my favorite opening lines:

    “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” – David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

    Oh, this one’s good. Very good indeed. 🙂

    “I am so sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you will never be happy.” – Torture the Artist, by Joey Goebel

    Not familiar with this author, but this is pretty good. 🙂

  8. Of course I think Stephen King is a Master of opening lines. Oddly, his “Gunslinger” series was what I thought of when I first read your Western Fantasy.

    Aw, thanks. Hope it wasn’t TOO big a knock-off though. *worry*

    Here’s my favorite (from SK’s “IT”:
    “The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years — if it ever did end — began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”

    That’s a good one, but the simplicity of The Gunslinger‘s opening line is what makes it best to me. 🙂

    Also, a favorite:

    “You unlock this door with the key of imagination.” — Rod Serling

    OH, SWEET! That one IS great!

  9. I agree with the opening line from “It” is a great one and I agree that SK has some of the best ones.

    This one though got me:

    “The most beautiful corpse I had ever seen was sitting behind my desk”
    from The Killing Dance by Laurell K. Hamilton which is one of her Anita Blake series.

    It’s a good ‘un! Nice!


    “There was dried chicken blood embedded under my fingernails. When you raise the dead for a living, you have to spill a little blood”
    Also from the Anita Blake series, Circus of the Damned.

    Another cool one. 🙂

    I see a strong proclivity toward horror themes going on – does that make me a sick puppy since most of the authors that I have read lately are in this genre?

    Only if I’m a sick puppy for writing it. 🙂

  10. For me, the best opener was Catch-22‘s “It was love at first sight.”

    So short, simple, conventional that it hurls you into the second sentence before you’re quite ready to learn that the love in question was the male protagonist’s, Yossarian’s, for a loudmouth Texan whom Yossarian could not stand. Immediately you’re in a topsy-turvy world — right where Heller needs you.

    Or something like that. 🙂

    Y’know, I’ve never read Catch-22; I’m going to have to do that soon.

  11. I don’t remember any first lines off the top of my head.

    I’m sneaky: when I go book browsing, I start by reading a random segment from the middle of the book to judge the quality of the writing. I know that authors always put their best foot forward on the first page. But how about 1/3 of the way through? 2/3 of the way through? Those bits will show you what the whole book is actually like. If I like my random samplings, then I look at the first page, and if that’s good too then I’m sold.

    Very cool strategy, Sparky! That’s a good idea. 🙂

  12. Favorite opening line of a book

    “Being arrested by the FBI is not all its cracked up to be”…

    the title escapes me ..but written by a former Navy Seal…..great book and one of those books you cannot put down

    “I have an engineering problem”
    Last lecture by Randy Pausch..

    Zman sends

    Those are good ones, Zman. Thanks!

  13. …remember the movie; ‘As Good As It Gets’ with Jack and the girl, whatshername? …he says, “you make me want to be a better man.” This movie, to me, is the best ever. He’s a neurotic mess, writer no less, and his character, obviously, has word command extraordinaire. The entire script is most economical making the characters dramatic pause, demeanor, expression so important.

    Jack’s “teh awesome”, and that line IS a great line. I’ve loved it. Don’t know the movie, haven’t seen it, but that line is fantastic. The girl, by the way, is Helen Hunt.

    BTW, the writer character was probably the only and last man to ever to have made such a statement…geeish!

    Probably. No one can use it now — they’d be stealing it from the character. That’s a classic which can’t be duplicated.

  14. Two opening lines hooked me.

    The first was from a book I never intended to read, but had checked out from the library for a friend. The book was on my kitchen table and I didn’t understand what the fuss was all about so I picked it up intending to read a little. The first line drew me in, and by the end of the first page I was hooked. The line was: “When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake–not a very big one.” Nine hundred and forty five pages and twenty two years later, this is still the best book I’ve ever read.

    Which book is that? Sounds … long. But that’s a good first line.

    The second line was: “Everything, Sam Peebles decided later, was the fault of the goddamned acrobat.” What a weird thing to say.

    Hehehe. I like weird lines. That’s good.

    • I was hoping you could guess.

      The first line was from Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurrtry. The second line was from The Library Police by (drumroll) Stephen King. You really should have recognized the hook. 🙂

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