“Running out of gas, Rabbit Angstrom thinks as he stands behind the summer-dusty windows of the Springer Motors display room watching the traffic go by on Route 111, traffic somehow thin and scared compared to what it used to be.”
First line of Rabbit is Rich, the third in Updike’s four-book saga about the life and times of everyman Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom.
After a sentence like that, how you can you not read on to find out who or what’s running out of gas? In case you’re wondering: “The fucking world is running out of gas.” It’s 1979, and the shortage is both real and metaphorical.
There are moments when I need the inspiration that comes from reading the opening lines of great novels. I tend to respond most to those that thrust me in the middle of something, so that I have no choice but to read a few more sentences, if only to orient myself in the new world—and usually, once I read a few more sentences, I want to read a few more. And then I’m hooked.
Here’s a random sampling of memorable first lines from the Alex Alger library.
“It’s a new elevator, freshly pressed to the rails, and it’s not built to fall this fast.” The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead
Like a match struck in a darkened room: Two white girls in flannel nightgowns and red vinyl roller skates with white laces, tracing tentative circles on a cracked blue slate sidewalk at seven o’clock on an evening in July.” The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem
“Roy would not have noticed the strange boy if it weren’t for Dana Matherson, because Roy ordinarily didn’t look out the window of the school bus.” Hoot, Carl Hiaasen
“It began in the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel.” A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
“His children were falling from the sky.” Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
“Walking back to camp through the swamp, Sam wondered whether to tell his father what he had seen.” The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White
“I might as well say, right from the jump: it wasn’t my usual kind of job.” People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks
“Our mother performed in starlight.” Swamplandia!, Karen Russell
“Selden paused in surprise.” The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
And—one of my all-time favorites:
“Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
Agents and editors always tell aspiring writers to avoid opening with a dream. That’s got to be because if you can’t do it as well as Daphne du Maurier does, what’s the point? Of course, no rule really applies to accomplished writers. Donna Tartt begins The Goldfinch with a dream, and no one minded. Certainly not the Pulitzer Prize Board. (“When I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.”)