“There are all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good opening line,” explained Stephen King in an interview with The Atlantic. “It’s tricky thing, and tough to talk about because I don’t think conceptually while I work on a first draft — I just write. To get scientific about it is a little like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar. But there’s one thing I’m sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”
Sometimes the opening line of a novel is not just inviting, it is memorable and becomes intricately linked to the novel in the mind of the reader. Who doesn’t know this one: “Call me Ishmael.”? Or this one: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”? They are, of course, from the famous novels Moby Dick by Herman Melville and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
There are many literary reference books that list the first (and sometimes also the last) lines of famous novels. One of them lists 209 memorable first lines, another lists 801 first sentences, another lists 1001, and yet another lists a whopping 11,000! It’s interesting to open up any of these reference books and flip through the pages to find out how many you know. Out of, say 200, how many would you know?
If you happen to be Monty Lord, a 14-year-old boy from Bolton, England, you would know over 100 books from their opening line. On of January 13, 2020, Bolton set new Guinness World Records by correctly identifying 129 books from their opening lines. The previous record-holder, a man in India, could only identify 30 books.
Lord was inspired to memorize the first sentences of novels when he was studying the powers of memory for a psychology course. He studied the opening lines of 200 well-known novels using visualization techniques over three weeks. His technique involved visualizing a connection between the sentence and the novel.
Are you ready for a challenge: can you break this world record?
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Read related posts: The Best Sentences in English Literature
The Worst Sentence Ever Written
Best Books for Word Lovers
Best Books for Writers
Most Famous Quotations in British Literature
There’s a Word for That: Piphilology
For further reading:
Call Me Ishmael: 801 Memorable First and Last Lines in Literature by David Spector
Famous Last Lines by Daneil Grogan