Most novels have unmemorable opening lines. Some, however, are eternally memorable, either because they are very good or very bad.
There is one opening line in particular that I have always found very strange:
Nuns go by as quiet as lust, and drunken men and sober eyes sing in the lobby of the Greek hotel.
- Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
I was incredulous when I first read that, lo these many years ago. I thought it was the strangest first line of a novel ever, and I have never forgotten it.
One of my all-time favorite opening lines is:
The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.
- Samuel Beckett, Murphy
When I first read that bleak line, also many years ago, I thought it was amazing, despite being a generally cheerful and optimistic person. It doesn't have the same impact on me these days, but I still remember the feeling of first reading it.
But what about the first lines of research articles or books?
Do you try to make your very first line -- of the abstract, of the introduction -- compelling, or do you take a more holistic approach, hoping that the reader will get through at least the first few sentences, or paragraphs, and, through the cumulative effect of several informative or interesting statements, get sucked into the rest of the paper, chapter, or book?
That is, how much do you try to pack into the first sentence?
Do you use the first sentence for giving context for your own work or do you dive straight into your most awesome result(s) and build the context around that in subsequent sentences?
I was recently working on the first sentence of a paper and was reminded, for no particular reason, of the days when my daughter was an infant and my husband and I carried a backpack that had all sorts of stuff in it that we might need on excursions, however, brief. Whenever we put things into the pack, we tried to organize it so that the items we might need first or most often or most quickly were the most accessible, but that actually described 90% of the items in the bag. We used to joke that everything had to be at the top of the bag.
When writing a first sentence, it is tempting to put everything on top of the bag. The perfect first sentence of a research article would have both the context and the coolest results in it, yet be reasonably short, very understandable, and of course compelling. Some topics lend themselves to this more than others.
In the manuscript I wrote recently, I decided to devote the first sentence to setting up the research question, and the second sentence to my awesome results. This seems to work OK, but I can't help wishing that I could combine them into one perfect (but short) sentence.
Can you think of any particularly good or particularly bad (or otherwise memorable) first lines in research articles, chapters, or books?
And then there is the issue of the title. To colonize or not to colonize: that is another question.
10 years ago