There are a lot of familiar starts to stories like, “In the beginning,” or “once upon a time,” or “I never thought it would happen to me, but…” (oops, sorry, that last one is for a different forum). Granted these have been used with varied success, but an author’s introduction creativity can make his or her work really stand out. I believe first sentences are keys to opening the rest of the work.
Though not science fiction, one of my all time favorite first lines comes from Victor Gischler’s 2001 crime novel Gun Monkeys. Rarely can a group of words make me both cringe and chuckle at the same time like, “I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer’s headless body in the trunk, and all the time I’m thinking I should’ve put some plastic down.” This is what I call a “Wow” opening. Every time I read this book, I can’t help but consider how casual the macabre scene is presented and how it inevitably epitomizes the rest of the book. If you haven’t read it yet, you may want to put some plastic down when you do.
With the vast idea opportunities available in science fiction, the first sentence has an obligation to initiate the reader to the rest of the story. One of, if not the earliest entries in the genre is the horrific introduction to the 1818 classic Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. “You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.” By warning the reader not to worry, that all is okay…for now anyway, it is quite ominous despite what the narrator is saying. Right from the start, one has the sense that bad stuff is about to be told.
In Edwin A. Abbott’s 1884 epic Flatland, the narrator does his best not to offend the reader while suggesting that the following narration is not your normal story. “I call our world Flatland, not because we call it so, but to make its nature clearer to you, my happy readers, who are privileged to live in space.” This doesn’t explain the concept of the book, but then again, many readers feel the same confusion even after turning the last page. Still, it is a classic intro to a classic story.
H.G. Wells has a strong list of first liners to his credit as well. “The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us,” opens the 1895 story The Time Machine. “I do not propose to add anything to what has already been written concerning the loss of the Lady Vain,” is the opening to the 1896 story The Island of Dr. Moreau. And one of my favorites, The War of the Worlds from 1898 begins with, “No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.” I can’t help but look up into the sky with uncertainty after reading this line.
Considering this forum, we cannot overlook the first publication of Amazing Stories and the grand selection of first lines welcoming the new readers back in 1929. Just one sentence can be enough to draw the true fan into the story.
“Nothing sir, can induce me to surrender my claim.” – Off on a Comet by Jules Verne
“Certainly, if ever a man found a guinea when he was looking for a pin it is my good friend Professor Gibbern” – The New Accelerator by H.G. Wells
“I am a lost soul, and I am homesick.” – The Man from the Atom by G. Payton Wertenbaker
“They sat about their camp-fire, that little party of Americans retreating southward from Hudson Bay before the on-coming menace of the great cold.” – The THING from – “OUTSIDE” by George Allen England
“Even the beginning.” – The Man Who Saved the Earth by Austin Hall
“Of course I shall not pretend to consider it any matter for wonder, that the extraordinary case of M. Valdemar has excited discussion.” – The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar by Edgar Allan Poe
Scanning our bookshelf of classics, it’s not hard to find a few more memorable opening lines. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” from George Orwell’s dystopian prediction 1984 written in 1949. Isaac Asimov begins his 1966 Fantastic Voyage by describing a technologically advanced future with, “It was an old plane, a four-engine plasma jet that had been retired from active service, and it came in along a route that was neither economical nor particularly safe.” And of course Ray Bradbury shocks his readers from the start by stating, “It was a pleasure to burn,” in his 1953 book Fahrenheit 451.
Not every beginning needs to be a shocker. But the classics often seem to immortalize the simplest of opening statements like “In the hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit” Not necessarily a bombshell, these ten simple words transports the reader to J.R.R. Tolkien’s land of Middle Earth in the 1937 classic The Hobbit – There and Back Again. Without saying it in detail, the scene of peacefulness and tranquility of the shire is unmistaken.
In Philip José Farmer’s introduction to the Riverworld saga, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the story opens with an emotional hint of things to come for Richard Francis Burton. “His wife had held him in her arms as if she could keep death away from him.” Little did we know by reading this first sentence that death as we know it, is indeed kept at bay by the river’s strange resurrection of human existence. I remember the first time I read this, I could not stop thinking that Burton’s wife was actually (not metaphorically) the winding river.
Just as first impressions are often the most lasting, literary first lines can be the most important. In a way, these are like the briefest of cover letters writers submit directly to their readers. Though sometimes forgotten, a reader’s valuable time is the ultimate publisher acceptance. And sometimes that acceptance is judged from the very start.
One cannot expect to learn everything in the beginning, but the first line is most certainly a powerful hook. Aside from a story’s title (perhaps a topic for a future post), the first line is often the gateway to the rest of the tale. I’m confident there are many more notable starts worth mentioning. Then again, there are also many illuminating last lines to be considered. If only I could figure out a way to avoid spoilers. Classic endings would make for a fantastic discussion if revealing conclusions weren’t so messy. Maybe we can look at a few if I put some plastic down in the beginning.