I've been thinking a lot about openings - of the literary variety, as well the theatrical. More and more I'm seeing how if you don't let a reader or audience see clearly from the onset what they're in for, they might never get on the ride.
I'm currently working on six musicals at once, so I'm still sorting out my thoughts on what's needed there, but I can post here my thoughts on what makes a great opening for a novel.
I think the best first lines do the following:
1) Make a strong impact
2) Convey mystery and suspense
3) Relate to the overall theme of the book
Perhaps the finest example is from E.B. White's Charlotte's Web:
"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
One simple line accomplishes all three conditions. 1) What could be a stronger impact than an ax? 2) The suspense is inherent in the question and, most artfully, 3) The sentence encapsulates the entire premise and central conflict of the book, which is that Wilbur the pig will be slaughtered. Moreover, it does it in a matter-of-fact way over breakfast, underscoring White's theme of the naturalness of the cycles of life.
It's a brilliant sentence.
Here are some of my other favorites:
Tap-dancing child abuser. That’s what The Sunday New York Times from March 8, 1993, had called Vivi.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Rebecca Wells
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving
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, J.K. Rowling
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all.
The Gift of the Magi, O.Henry
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if you’re dead.
A Certain Slant of Light, Laura Whitcomb
All children, except one, grow up.
Peter Pan, James Barrie
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me.
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger