TLDR: Opening lines of stories set up expectations about what’s to follow. I analyze opening lines of books.
I’m not going to debate the importance of a good opening line. I’m simply going to dive in to some examples and give my analysis.
The eyewitness said he didn’t actually see it happen.
-A Wanted Man by Lee Child
This witty opening line sets up a mystery with a playful helping of irony. Something has happened, perhaps a crime. We don’t know what and, ironically, neither does the eyewitness. Read on to find out. This is a great opening line for the sort of popular thrillers Lee Child writes.
A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard.
-Blade Runner (aka: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) by Phillip K. Dick
This opening introduces us to our protagonist and the world he lives in, a strange and yet familiar world in which alarms rouse people, but with a science fiction twist. We will rapidly learn that this is a dystopian world in which things like mood and humanity are controlled, judged, and questioned. This opening line sets up our expectations for the rest of the book. Two thumbs up.
Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.
-Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
A jarring opening line. The first eight words are banal and the remainder are anything but. Here too there is a mystery: Who is Tyler and what kind of maniac is he? The reader wants to read onward to find out. This opening line is brilliant. So many things are happening at once. This also sets up the tone and central enigma of Fight Club.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
-1984 by George Orwell
Nice scene setting with this opening line. We have the familiar again juxtaposed with the unfamiliar, and the eerie sensation that something is not right with this world.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
-Neuromancer by William Gibson
You’ll find this opening line on lists of great opening lines, but it has never resonated with me. Perhaps I’m being too literal, but I just don’t think that a static-filled TV looks like the sky, any sky, ever. However, this line does convey an eerie sense that not all is well with this world and that something has gone wrong technologically.
Ash fell from the sky.
-Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
Well it doesn’t get any more basic than this. Something is definitely wrong with this world. Sanderson hopes the reader is eager to find out what.
And now for some sample opening lines from short stories. I looked at the first three stories in the Sept-Oct 2018 edition of Fantasy & Science Fiction:
The problem, people told her, was that she was always dealing with the dead.
-The Memorybox Vultures by Brian Trent
This opening line introduces us to an intriguing protagonist and a problem she has. We also learn a lot about her character. The problem she has is other people’s judgment. The implication is that she doesn’t mind dealing with the dead.
“Would you mind taking off the hat, ma’am?”
-Shooting Iron by Cassandra Khaw and Jonathan L. Howard
This opening line perhaps suggests a western theme and certainly leaps right in to action (dialogue being a form of action), but otherwise this one doesn’t work, in my opinion.
As the thunderstorms roared away east, the boy flowers reached with all the strength of their spines to suck whatever sunshine had been left behind.
-The Men Who Come From Flowers by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
This line provides evocative visuals and scene setting with a large dose of the weird. It also introduces what, I assume, is the conceit of the story: that flowers come in boy and girl varieties. This is a good sci-fi opening as it introduces the conceit that will be explored further in the story.
In conclusion, a lot of opening lines concern themselves with scene setting and tone, but mystery is important too. I only gave the one example of a line that is heavily character focused (The Memorybox Vultures), which suggests that this is less important, or at least less common.
I would like to improve the opening line of my novel. I have written some options below. Tell me which one you think provides the most atmosphere and intrigue, or simply which one you like best:
1. As she injected herself with cronus that would have to last her a long time, she wondered if adventure was safe in any dose.
2. Immortality had worn a comfortable groove into her life, but Viosa wondered if there was something more.
3. Dissatisfaction, the deadliest disease of Immortals, swam in her veins.
4. If the pillar that held up the sky had not changed, Viosa wondered, why had she?
5. Good Immortals don’t venture far beyond the walls and they don’t ask questions about holes in the sky.