Sure-fire opening lines

This was originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a novel in want of readers must be possessed of a good opening line. A book is a relationship – many of us spend more intimate time with books than with people – and it is important to start the relationship off on a good foot.

So, naturally, I wondered whether good opening lines for books were like good opening lines on Tinder.

A book, of course, is not addressing you personally. Still, like your first message to someone on Tinder (I’m told), a book’s opening line should include a couple of attention-grabbing details, be about something the reader is interested in, refer to things they know about, present honesty and vulnerability, and leave the reader wanting to know more. It’s even better if it’s witty.

On the other hand, books are supposed to bring adventure, with danger and disturbance. It’s safe, since you can close the cover and return to normalcy, but it can’t be like a nice date. Death makes for bad dates but good reading.

So, as a study in pragmatics and discourse, let’s try some opening lines of books lightly adapted to be Tinder opening lines and see how they do.

  • “Hey. I am somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert and the drugs are beginning to take hold.” (Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)
  • “Good evening. It is a pleasure to burn.” (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451)
  • “JSYK, everything in my profile happened, more or less.” (Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five)
  • “Greetings. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)
  • “How’s it going? 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, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” (J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye)
  • “Greetings. I am a woman who has discovered she has turned into the wrong person.” (Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups)
  • “Nice day, eh? The sun is shining, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” (Samuel Beckett, Murphy)
  • “A bit about myself: All children, except one, grow up.” (J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan)
  • “Yo. I awoke this morning from uneasy dreams and found myself transformed in my bed into a monstrous vermin.” (Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis)
  • “Hi there. I was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world is mad.” (Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche)
  • “Good day. I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground)
  • “My name is Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and I almost deserve it.” (C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)
  • “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” (Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle)

From these we observe two further truisms:

  1. The genre expectations of narrative fiction are sharply different from those of dating.
  2. Most protagonists of novels may be very interesting to read about but are not the kind of people you would want to go on a date with.

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