Chad Huskins is the EVVY Award-winning author of Zero Star and The Sol Ascendancy.
I got inspired recently to write up a list of the opening lines in novels that have stuck out to me be the most. So here they are, in no particular order, with an explanation of why these are so great.
1. "Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet." - Robert E. Howard, The Phoenix on the Sword (the first Conan story)
This one is famous among fans of the "sword and sorcery" genre. It sets the stage perfectly for the story that is about to unravel, a story told by Howard's brutal imagery, his wondrous worlds, and his driving narrative that revealed barbarism as something potentially redemptive in Man, and not something to be shunned or hated. Howard had a strong belief in the masculine, in the iron will to forge one's own path, as Conan does. This opening line basically says, "Here comes a badass, and you'd do well to get out of his way."
2. "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 & Prejudice
From the masculine, we go to the feminine...and the witty. Like any good opening line should do, Austen's presents a general premise without trying to divulge plot-plot-plot all at once. Some people miss the humor in the opening line, thinking Austen is dead serious. Far from it. She means it in the sense that people have accepted that a single man who is rich must be searching for a wife, particularly in the world she's established. The people in her story (and of the Age she lived in) care for nothing more than to have their daughters married well off, hopefully to the advantage of the rest of the family--i.e., her husband is rich and can help pay everyone's bills.
3. "Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long, precisely..." Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Though I don't have the room to thoroughly go through Melville's entire opening, it all stems from this line, which immediately establishes a familiarity between the reader and the narrator. And yet there is also great ambiguity right off the bat, for Melville basically says "Just call me by my first name," doesn't bother with a last name, and then just says "this happened a while back, but it doesn't matter just how long ago." Familiarity coupled with ambiguity...kind of like an old friend you've not seen in a while, returning to tell you about a thing that changed him forever while he was gone. The reader is invited in. We've been invited to the pub, where a lonely man named Ishmael sits, perhaps alone, with ale in hand, to tell us a story. Let's have a seat with him, and hear what he has to say...
4. "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." - George Orwell, 1984
This one is haunting because...well, we the readers happen to know that that's NOT how clocks work. This begins the story of a world that has gone terribly, terribly wrong. In this book, which famously created the terms "Big Brother" and "double-think," we find ourselves in a world where lies are truth, truth are lies, the government controls the narrative strictly, the freedom of the press has been dismantled, and Big Brother is always watching. If it is not the original dystopian future novel, then it is, without a doubt, the reigning champion by which all others are judged. And from the opening line, we already know that something is wrong...
5. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only." - Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Dickens decided to put the reader into the mood of his setting, but, like he says at the end, the "time" he's referring to is EXACTLY like whatever era the reader happens to be in when they're reading it. He suggests that nothing ever changes, in that all times can be described as the worst, or the best, and that people will often describe whatever era they're living in as both. It depends on where you are in life, what privileges or station you have. These things determine how good or bad you view the current era. And, as he says, the "noisiest authorities" seem intent to only be able to make their arguments for their current period being the "best" or "worst" by using comparisons.
6. "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." - Stephen King, The Gunslinger
This line cuts right to it. It says "Here's your story." Of course, there's still plenty of mystery. We don't know who either of these men are, or why one is chasing the other, but we're immediately fascinated. An old adage among writers is to "Start your story in the middle." Kind of like how the first Star Wars movie begins with us seeing the Rebel starship already being chased by the Imperial ship. We're learning who Darth Vader is while the story is on the move, almost like we came in the middle of a TV series and missed the whole first half. It's an excellent way to get readers invested right away, and have them salivating for the details that explain why these characters are doing what they're doing. Much better than describing them at length at the beginning, and then getting us to the chase around Chapter 4. Stephen King himself has expressed that he believes this opening line is his most solid work.
7. "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents." - H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulu
H.P. Lovecraft is considered by most people to be the greatest horror writer of all time, and he never even wrote about an ax murderer, or described the sight entrails overly long. No, Lovecraft made a career by inventing a new style of writing--he would describe all the things that the "monster" DIDN'T look like, or would be so vague in his description, and yet all the while summoning imagery, that he encourage the reader to think up something even more dreadful on their own, something that defied all known geometry, physics, and biology. The true horror for Lovecraft was the idea that some things might be forever beyond the ken of Man, and what might happen if a human being witnessed, with their own eyes, the things that they were never meant to see? That's what this opening line is all about. Lovecraft would consider it a "mercy" if the human mind could simply go on not understanding all the horrors it had seen...especially after the narrator of this story reveals to you the truth terrors he has witnessed. He wants to forget. More than anything, he wants to be oblivious again. Ignorance is bliss...