Oh, that fabled first sentence. Does it really make or break the story? I'm inclined to think the first paragraph is more important, really. While some first lines are so brilliant that almost everyone has at least heard them (I bet you know how A Tale of Two Cities, Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, and Moby Dick begin), other first lines simply serve the purpose of drawing back the curtain on the story. As a writer, I try not to obsess so much over my opening line that I neglect the rest of the opening paragraph, or even all of the opening scene. How many readers actually read only the first sentence of a book, say, "Not interested," and quit? I'm betting most people at least read the first paragraph, if not the first page or chapter. At least, I hope so.
Anyway, here are ten of my favorite first lines (not counting the one pictured above). In alphabetical order by title, since I had to order them some way. I'm also including my thoughts on why I think these first lines work so well.
I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him. -- The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King
Right away we learn that the protagonist is a teenage girl, loves to read, and gets to meet someone very exciting indeed. Folks, this is how to introduce two characters and set up the relationship that forms the basis of an entire series.
It was a pleasure to burn. -- Fahrenheit 451 by Raymond Chandler
Whoa. That one grabs you, doesn't it? What's being burned, who's burning it, and what kind of a person takes pleasure in burning something, anyway?
When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton. -- The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
This one isn't as attention-getting, not at first. Still, the phrases "eleventy-first birthday" and "special magnificence" are intriguing, and the fact that this announcement has caused much talk and excitement tells us this might be more momentous than we suspect.
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. -- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling
With an opener like that, you absolutely know that nothing in this book is going to be perfectly normal for long. Why are these Dursleys so insistent that they are normal? What are they hiding? And who wants to be normal, anyway?
He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher -- the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum. -- Kim by Rudyard Kipling
This is a most instructive opening sentence. We learn, most importantly, that this character doesn't care much for rules and orders, and that he likes excitement and danger. We also learn this takes place somewhere overseas, India in fact. This book will have defiance, guns, and natives. Sounds fun!
When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home. -- The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
Probably my favorite opening line ever. What Paul Newman movie did the narrator just see and, more importantly, why don't they have a ride home? I just plain love this book, and have random chunks memorized, including this line.
The voice on the telephone seemed to be sharp and peremptory, but I didn't hear too well what it said -- partly because I was only half awake and partly because I was holding the receiver upside down. -- Playback by Raymond Chandler
Wow. From just one line, you can tell this writer can describe circles around most authors, and also that the protagonist is more likely to stumble than waltz his way through the mystery. I love that upside-down telephone receiver. Not afraid of admitting his shortcomings, this guy.
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. -- Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Is this narrator unable to go to Manderley, and can only dream of doing so? Where is Manderley, anyway -- sounds exotic.
"The Signora had no business to do it," said Miss Bartlett, "no business at all." -- A Room with a View by E. M. Forster
This is another one that tells us a lot about the setting and a character. Clearly, we're in Italy. And Miss Bartlett likes making judgments, we can tell already. So what did this Signora do that she had no business doing?
The Minotaur had been causing trouble far in excess of his literary importance -- first by escaping from the fantasy-genre prison book Sword of the Zenobians, then by leading us on a merry chase across most of fiction and thwarting all attempts to recapture him. -- Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde
This is the fourth book in a series, so by this time, the reader should know all about the Book World and how characters can move from one book to another. So Fforde opens by reminding us of that, tosses in a funny-sounding creature (am I the only one who thinks a Minotaur sounds like a minor dinosaur?), and sets up the exciting first scene. How did that Minotaur escape, and how with Thursday Next recapture it?
So. What I've noticed here is that a good opening sentence raises questions and supplies interesting information. I'll try to remember that next time I start a story :-)