It was a dark and stormy night
Eartha was reciting a chapter from the life of one of her great-uncles: "He left but he never said goodbye." That sounded like the first sentence of a novel so I sat up and paid attention although I hadn't been paying attention until that very moment.
Many novelists believe that the very first sentence of any book should be so dramatic and memorable that it grabs and holds the reader from the start, never lets go and makes her wonder "where is this going to go?"
On the subject of first sentences, the first sentence of my own autobiography would be "I was born exactly 9 months after the coldest day in North Dakota history, it being conceivable that the latter event was a result of the former." Many years passed, but nothing important happened after that latter event, so that book will never advance beyond that first sentence.
The great writers have always known how to seize your attention. Charles Dickens, for example, started "A Tale of Two Cities" with the memorable "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." and started "David Copperfield" with "whether I turn out to be the hero of my own life or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."
It is said that one of the most famous opening sentences in western literature was this one by Jane Austin in "Pride and Prejudice" "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man of good fortune must be in want of a wife." There are many other novels dealing with the relationship between the sexes, like this one by Charles Johnson to start "Middle Passage 1990" "Of all things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I've come to learn, is women." And here is another beginning by Gilbert Sorrentino in "Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things" that will urge you on to not only start, but finish the book: "what if this young woman, who writes bad poems, in competition with her husband, whose poems are equally bad, should stretch her remarkably long and well-made legs out before you, so that her skirt slides up over the tops of her stockings?" Read on, read on.
My own first line for a book not yet written about the relationship between the sexes is, "He knew she was trouble the minute he saw her so he rushed right over and got acquainted." Then there will be a sequel --same two characters -- "His wife called him 'Mr. Wonderful,' but she didn't mean it as a compliment." The third book in the series will open like this "His first wife fired three shots at him; one was too high, one too low and the third one hit where he didn't want to tell you about it."
To set the stage for a thriller, Paul Auster in "City of Glass," established immediate drama with, "It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone rang three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not." My own thriller, also not yet written, will not be as subtle: "That pocket would normally conceal a camera he usually carried, but something told him that morning it might be a good idea to pack his 45 there instead."
On a more western theme, my unwritten action novel will start this way: "At 10 o'clock that morning, singing in perfect harmony, there they stood, all four with handlebar mustaches, moving the church with emotion with "Let There Be Peace In The Valley"; but at 2 o'clock that afternoon, peace and sabbath being forgotten, they rode out as a posse in the hunt for a kill."
Some opening sentences immediately signal what will surely be an unhappy ending, like the blunt first line by Ford Madox Ford in "The Good Soldier:" "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." Or "The sky above the port was the color of television turned to a dead channel" by William Gibson in "Neuroancer." Or "Justice? -- you get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law," by William Gaddis in "A Frolic of His Own." Or how about this for a grim opener: "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aurielano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice," by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in "One Hundred Years of Solitude." Or consider this direct statement: "Vaughn died yesterday in his last car-crash," by J.C. Ballard in "Crash." My own hint of a sad ending would be lighter: "Years later, as his car plunged over the cliff, he was pleased he was wearing clean underwear."
The original "dark and stormy night" opening was written by Edward George Bulliver-Lytton in "Paul Clifford in 1830:" "It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that this scene lies), rattling across the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."
You have now read a selection of some of the most famous first sentences in literature. There is just one more, by Ernest Hemingway in "The Old Man and the Sea" that reminds me of my fishing experiences during the year 2010: "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."