"If you look really closely at things, you'll forget you are going to die."
Consider these opening lines (the first four from novels, the rest from memoirs):
Call me Ishmael. (Moby Dick, Herman Melville): Why, "Call me Ishmael?" Why not, "My name is Ishmael?" There's mystery in that line.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (1984, George Orwell): Thirteen? The reader already knows that something is askew. Mystery.
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. (Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov): Wow! That poetic first sentence begs for another.
All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion. (Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy): Very portentous, full of promise and drama.
But that’s not where the story of my midlife crisis begins. (The Madwoman in the Volvo, Sandra Loh): Mysterious. Where does the story begin if not in the opening line? (I've chosen from the first chapter, not the introduction)
The night before my husband’s cancer surgery, I stay up to watch him sleep. (Wondering Who You Are, Sonya Lea): Introduces a dramatic core issue. Tells the reader something important about the couple’s relationship.
I’ve just dropped my vodka glass and am having that perennial, silly internal debate about whether I should order another one—since, let’s face it, I have reached the state where I’m dropping full glasses of vodka. (I Am Not Myself These Days, Josh Kilmer-Purcell): Dramatic first line tells the reader about the history of the narrator.
The Shah’s wife was unfaithful to him, so he cut off her head and summarily declared all women to be evil and thereby deserving of punishment. (Some Girls: My Life in a Harem, Jillian Lauren): Dramatic and scary. How did the narrator survive?
If my father caught me he would cut my neck, so I just kept going. (A Wolf at the Table, Augusten Burroughs): Why his neck? Did the father catch the narrator? The scene and the relationship are dramatic.
If you’re reading this, it means I’m already dead. Just kidding. I’m not dead. I’ve just always wanted to say that. It’s one of three things I’ve always wanted say with 100 percent sincerity but never had the right opportunity. (Shrinkage, Bryan Bishop): Begins with humor and mystery. What are the other two things the author has always wanted to say?
I wish Giovanni would kiss me. (Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert): Who is Giovanni? Does the kiss happen?
Until Miss Debbie, I’d never spoke to a white woman before. (Same Kind of Different as Me, Ron Hall and Denver Moore): You’d have to read on to discover why.
Until I began to build and launch rockets, I didn’t know my hometown was at war with itself over its children and that my parents were locked in a kind of bloodless combat over how my bother and I would live our lives. (Rocket Boys, Homer H. Hickham Jr.): Lots of mystery and poetry in this first line.
Late one afternoon in the summer of 2006, I found myself in a small village in northern Vietnam, sitting around a sooty kitchen fire with a number of local women whose language I did not speak, trying to ask them questions about marriage. (Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert): What did the women say about marriage? Why is the narrator asking?
Once upon a time the diary had a tiny key. Little red flakes now crumble off the worn cover. (The Red Leather Diary, Lily Koppel): The word “diary” is inherently interesting and mysterious. What’s inside?
“You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you. In China, your father had a sister who killed herself . . . (The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston): Starts with drama and a mystery. Why does the mother not want this secret repeated?
In the tunnel where I was raped, a tunnel that was once an underground entry to an amphitheater, a place where actors burst forth from underneath the seats of a crowd, a girl had been murdered and dismembered. I was told this story by the police. In comparison, they said, I was lucky. (Lucky, Alice Sebold): Drama on so many levels.
I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. (The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls): First line full of drama and mystery.
Here are links to some more collected opening lines:
San Francisco Writer's Conference
TIP: If you're struggling with your first line, skip down a line or two and see if that one works. Sometimes it's your second or third sentence that could be your true beginning.
If you can't catch the reader's attention at the start, don't bother going on." ~Marianne Moore