“The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.”
That’s the first line of Neil Stephenson’s recent novel, a piece of speculative fiction titled Seveneves.
Wow! Quite a start. A good opening is so important.
As Chuck Sambuchino observed in a Writer’s Digest column:
Writing fiction seems a lot like trying to pick up a Hot Stranger in a bar: The opening line makes or breaks us. If we blow our opening line in a bar, the Stranger turns off, never to find out what scintillating people we are; in a book, the reader stops, never to find out what scintillating prose awaits them on page two.
In other words, if we don’t grab them immediately, it’s over.
Stephenson doesn’t blow the first line He needs to get you all the way into the world he’s building right there in the first sentence, because it’s a big world in terms of time, space.
As Charles Yu explains in his N.Y. Times review, Stephenson takes on some huge questions.
What if Earth’s moon suddenly and spontaneously broke apart into seven large pieces? What would happen to life on Earth? It’s an intriguing premise, one that could conceivably go in any number of interesting directions. What would be the ramifications for every aspect of society, including economics, governance, the rule of law, privacy and security, not to mention even more fundamental matters like reproductive rights, religion and belief?
With his dramatic first line, Stephenson makes readers want to stick around to find out his answers to all of these questions. As Douglas Wolk observes in the Los Angeles Times, “Neal Stephenson is amazing at beginnings…”
While we admire great beginnings like Stephenson’s, we should also remember as Sambuchino advises, that’s not all there is.
…the important thing isn’t the opening sentence; it’s all the sentences that follow it. Without a compelling story and appealing characters, opening lines, even though by such distinguished authors, would be just—well, sentences.
What’s your favorite opening line for a novel? Leave a comment below.