The best works of literature begin with an epic hook. Usually, this is a sentence of sublime beauty. However, sometimes the entire opening paragraph gleams like cut crystal. Either way, if it grabs the reader and pulls them in with ease, it has done its job.
As grammarians, we appreciate the beauty of a well-written line. Flawless syntax is a sure way to win our hearts. Let’s explore some of the best examples.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
George Orwell hit a home run with this one. The reader is aware of two things immediately: something dark is about to happen, and we are no longer in Kansas. Orwell’s classic dystopian novel is a terrifying ride through the worst of societal ills.
“All this happened, more or less.”
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is a well-known humorist, and he proves it with this line. The words conjure a smile right away because we know that the tale is going to come with a lie or two. It’s up to us to differentiate the fantastic from the realistic. Vonnegut’s account of the firebombing of Dresden does manage to be rather funny at times, despite the horror of the event itself.
“All children, except one, grow up.”
A beautiful work of children’s literature, J. M Barrie’s tale begins with a perfect line. The story is an adventure of magic and wonder, and he previews it all in six simple words.
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”
Franz Kafka’s famous novella grabs readers immediately. The audience cannot help but continue to read the story after witnessing Samsa’s dilemma. We want to know exactly what happened, why, and what he intends to do about it.
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”
(The Old Man and the Sea)
Ernest Hemingway is a master of the simple, and the profound. This quick introduction does all it is intended to do, and it does so with style.
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”
(Their Eyes Were Watching God)
Evoking a poignant truth, Zora Neale Hurston pulls in her readers instantly with this one.
“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.”
J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic begins with a simple statement of fact. The sentence serves the book well, though. First, we know the story is a fantasy, and second, we want to know more about these creatures called “hobbits.”
”No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
(The Haunting of Hill House)
These first few lines are easily a contender for the best paragraph of all time. Shirley Jackson sets the tone and the mood right away. The house is scary, it lives in its own dark heart, and it will hurt anyone who approaches.
There are hundreds of additional “perfect first lines” out there that we could have picked. What are some of your favorites, and why?