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Opening Lines: Portals Into New Worlds

The opening line is the writer’s invitation to partake in this particular journey with these particular people in this particular place and time.
| Mar 21, 2017 | 2 comments |

If we judge a book by its cover (which we totally do), then we might judge the need to read that book based on its opening line.

Opening lines are a glorious bane for writers.

A bane because they’re So. Dang. Hard.

Glorious because if you nail it, you’ll have the reader’s attention (with Facebook, YouTube, and a thousand other distractions vying for that attention, it’s quite the accomplishment).

And some first lines are etched upon the hallowed halls of literary immortality.

Many things rise and fall on the strength of an opening line. It helps set the mood of the book; may hint at the theme; introduces the story, the world, a character—perhaps all three. It’s the writer’s invitation to partake in this particular journey with these particular people in this particular place and time.

Plus it needs to add a punch that needs to grab us by the collar and refuse to let go.

More importantly, when it comes to sci-fi and fantasy, how does that line prepare us to enter a new world?

What makes an opening line sparkle, or conversely flicker out with a tragic blink?

Consider some examples.

Fantasy

  1. In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
  2. The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning. (Yes, a paragraph, but it all goes together.)
  3. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
  4. Szeth-son-son-Vallano, Truthless of Shinovar, wore white on the day he was to kill a king.
  5. The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
  6. Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.

Science Fiction

  1. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
  2. “I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.”
  3. It was a pleasure to burn.
  4. In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.
  5. The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us.
  6. There was once a time when only God knew the day you’d die.

How many of those did you recognize? How many captured you as a reader, either now or the first time you read them? Were any boring or too vague?

I think the best opening lines raise questions. My personal favorite from the lists above is the one about Szeth.

  • Why is he Truthless of Shinovar?
  • What the heck does that even mean?
  • And why in the world is he going to kill a king?
  • Will he succeed?
  • Should I be cheering for him or hoping he fails?

It’s amazing how such a simple sentence can raise questions upon questions. And where we have questions, we need answers. Cue the subtle brilliance that now has us engaged in the story.

What do you think makes for a good opening line in a fantasy or sci-fi book?

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Julie D
Guest

There were only four I didn’t recognize, and only one I hadn’t read (which I actually did recognize, title drops are hard to ignore)
And it might not be the first line, but the prologue for The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, describing the discovery of aliens in another world, ends with
“The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God’s other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went ad majorem Dei glortam: for the greater glory of God.
They meant no harm.”
And then the first chapter begins with a press conference stating that only one man returned alive.

That one sentence “They meant no harm,” is all but shouting ‘HARM WAS DONE.’ So the question is not, ‘what will happen to these men?’ but, ‘what brought about this disastrous conclusion?’ While the first question could sustain interest, the second conclusion increases the stakes. We know these characters will suffer. But we don’t know why or how, which creates a fascinating parallel with the main narrative arc.

Jason Brown
Guest

I recognized a few (reading The Gunslinger, how can I not know that line?), Others immediately caught my attention (what? Someone besides God will know when someone will die?), And that strong opening line was a lesson back in 11th grade English, I still remember that 12 years later.