Favorite Opening Lines?

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 15.678% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Looky here!  What do we have?  My new henna, as done by my glorious girlfriend Bec!
Henna... Or sympathetic magic(k)?
It’s a little light, as henna tends to be on its first days before it takes root in the skin and darkens… But clever symbolism-interpreters may notice the Hugo rocket taking off towards a nebula.  What sympathetic magick could this be, one asks?  Well, by some strange coincidence, my Nebula-nominated novelette “Sauerkraut Station” is also eligible for the Hugos – so if you’re registered for WorldCon, have read Sauerkraut Station, and would like to nominate it, perhaps you should.
(It’s also really pretty.  I didn’t do it just to shill for the Hugos, I just think Bec does wonderful work and I like wearing her on my skin.  I’m told most people have already voted for the Hugos, even though I certainly haven’t, being lazy that way.)
However, in other news, one of my writers’ groups started tossing around their favorite first lines in fiction.  I love first lines, because there are so many ways to catch a reader’s attention – even if first lines aren’t necessarily the key to a great book.  (A Wrinkle In Time, I was shocked to find, actually begins with that hoary old chestnut “It was a dark and stormy night.”  Fortunately, the rest of the book gets way better.)
My favorite first line for a story is probably from Kij Johnson’s “Spar“:
In the tiny lifeboat, she and the alien fuck endlessly, relentlessly.
That’s a beautiful, brutal opening – it’s got a delightful, almost poetic rhythm to it, but there’s very little poetry – a stark portrayal of desperation.  The story fleshes out the relevant details, in perhaps more description of alien flesh than one might want, but it’s certainly the kind of thing that makes you want to find out what the fuck is happening.
Though my friend Lara Herndon suggested a great novel opening, from Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:
It was a pleasure to burn.
In six words, Bradbury’s inverted the usual terror that comes with fire, converting destruction into glory.  What makes that sentence tick is the word “pleasure,” with all of its implications of lazy Sundays and slowly-savored Scotches, a luxury you can stretch out into – the word “delight” or “fun” or “enjoyment” wouldn’t have carried it.  This is an opening sentence that is carried on the back of one perfectly-chosen word – as Bradbury is wont to do.
So, I ask you, writers and readers alike: what’s your favorite opening sentence, and why? If you’re a writer, breaking down the appeal of this first line is kind of a neat exercise.  Speak in the comments!  I’m on a ten-hour cross-country drive today, and I need all of the distraction I can get!


  1. blackcoat
    Feb 24, 2012

    “The Court sentences Gerald Nathan Crove to be put to death by every available means until such time as he apologizes to the American Public for his crimes; Court stands adjourned, Lord in Heaven, do I have a headache.” – A Thousand Deaths, Orson Scott Card,

  2. John Perich
    Feb 24, 2012

    “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” – Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche. It’s on his epitaph; it’s going on mine.

  3. ewinbee
    Feb 24, 2012

    It’s a bit of a cliche, but…
    “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
    It’s one of the few verses of the Bible that simply doesn’t change in most translations. There’s general agreement that in the original Hebrew, “the heavens and the earth” is a colloquialism intended to refer to “everything”. But there’s some contention as to what “In the beginning” refers to, and it points to one of what I consider to be the loveliest of theological concepts: the notion that God exists outside of time. Because the phrase could arguably be translated as ‘at a beginning time’ or ‘at a beginning place’ or ‘at the origin’ or ‘at the top’.
    Just… somewhere before or outside or inside or beyond.
    We can’t conceive of anything not having a starting point. There’s some place of initiation in this context that our minds can only refer to in the vaguest of terms and perceptions. “At some point there was nothing and then God created stuff” inevitably ties God to time. Even theoretical mathematicians struggle to conceive of time as a simple dimensional measurement. We’re inextricably hooked to it.
    Creationists use the book of Genesis to argue all sorts of things; Biblical devotees who are not Creationist argue all sorts of things in counterpoint, but I personally think it’s all ridiculous. The writer of Genesis deliberately threw up his hands and ignored the whole bloody thing. “There’s a damn beginning. Forget where or when, or even what ‘beginning’ means. God created everything. And then…”
    The implication thereafter is that time was created… and that’s where the real fighting starts, but the writer never addresses any of it and never tries to. It’s an economical, lyrical, deliberate thump on the head. “Stuff happened, you can think about that in your own time. And then our story begins…”

  4. Bec
    Feb 24, 2012

    “”Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.” – Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy/. My second favorite author, and one of my top ten favorite books.
    Your mehndi looks awesome, and I’m sure it’ll be even better tomorrow. I hope the sympathetic magick works! You’re a joy to henna, and I loved your design concept; I’m so flattered and pleased by your words of praise, thank you. Any time you want to be hennaed, all you have to do is ask.

  5. Megan
    Feb 24, 2012

    “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” It’s from Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. I like it because it is charming and unexpected, which sets the tone for the rest of the book.

  6. Kelly Digges
    Feb 24, 2012

    “It was night again.”
    –The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
    It’s a simple little sentence, and not even a descriptive one. What I love about it is that in four words, it aches with weariness. “It was night *again*”? Of course it was night again. That’s how night works. So the presence of that one word communicates: here is a person so tired, so done with everything, that the simple cyclitude of the passage of time weighs on him.
    There are probably more, but that’s the one I can think of off the top of my head.

  7. Dan Bressler
    Feb 24, 2012

    Two opening lines that play with the traditional fairy tale opening:
    Once upon a time when the world was young there was a Martian named Smith. Valentine Michael Smith was as real as taxes but he was a race of one.
    -Stranger in a Strange Land, by R.A. Heinlein
    A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away
    -Star Wars

  8. It'sADriveByCommenting!
    Mar 3, 2012

    “The crow was dead, but the cat was still alive, and still something was very much wrong.”
    I don’t recall the author or the series name, just that this was the first line of the second in a rather unremarkable children’s fantasy series of chapter books. I can’t even say I like it – it bluntly told me, “This is NOT the first book, moron,” and rather spoiled quite a bit of the story in one go – but there was something to it, something that has kept me remembering it for the past twenty years. That’s gotta count for something.
    Now, if you want to talk favorite parting lines, Podkayne of Mars by Heinlein wins, hands down. “It seems to like me.” So small, so innocuous, but coming after everything before it it highlights such horrible truths about the speaker, and does it better than even the author’s outright statement about them did. Five words, and it changed the entire story I’d just read.

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