Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, widely considered a literary classic, starts with a simple sentence:
“All this happened, more or less.”
Isn’t that an amazing first line?
Now we’re not all Kurt Vonnegut (okay, none of us are), but we can still learn from the guy.
Why is this line so good? It sets the tone: satirical, somewhat detached, and spare. Thousand-page tomes are all well and good, but concise and precise literature is oftentimes even better.
Of course, there are many ways to start a story. Stephen King’s opening lines, for instance, often display a distinct style. Here’s the first sentence of King’s short story “The Monkey”:
“When Hal Shelburn saw it, when his son Dennis pulled it out of a mouldering Ralston-Purina carton that had been pushed far back under one attic eave, such a feeling of horror and dismay rose in him that for one moment he thought he would scream.”
King takes a slightly different approach than Vonnegut, though I think it’s no less effective. The first sentence of Slaughterhouse Five serves to set the tone for the rest of the novel. King, on the other hand, often starts with a character, sometimes several, and a situation. In our example, we’ve got Hal Shelburn, a father, and his son, Dennis. Dennis just pulled something awfully creepy out of a corner of the attic. What is this thing? Why is it so scary? The only way to find out is to read on. And that’s what makes it so effective.
For a third example, let’s turn to the great Salman Rushdie. His controversial 1988 novel The Satanic Verses begins thusly:
“‘To be born again,’ sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, ‘first you have to die.'”
This sentence is sick.
There’s a lot going on here. We have an element of fantasy introduced: the process of resurrection. We have a main character who is perhaps offering wisdom to another character. We also have the exciting image of a man “tumbling from the heavens.” How did he get there? Who is he singing to? Why the heck would a guy who’s falling from the sky be singing? There’s only one way to find out…
The best first sentences grab our interest, make us wonder, and invite us into the story. They might address tone or character or action or any number of other story elements, but, it seems to me, they all do one thing: demand us to read the rest.