So an intriguing context is important, and so is style. But for me, a good opening sentence really begins with voice. You hear people talk about "voice" a lot, when I think they really just mean "style." Voice is more than that. People come to books looking for something. But they don't come for the story, or even for the characters. They certainly don't come for the genre. I think readers come for the voice.
A novel's voice is something like a singer's -- think of singers like Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, who have no musical training but are instantly recognizable. When people pick up a Rolling Stones record, it's because they want access to that distinctive quality. They know that voice, they love that voice, and something in them connects profoundly with it. Well, it's the same way with books. Anyone who's read a lot of John Sanford, for example, knows that wry, sarcastic amusing voice that's his and his alone. Or Elmore Leonard -- my god, his writing is like a fingerprint. You'd recognize him anywhere. An appealing voice achieves an intimate connection -- a bond much stronger than the kind forged, intellectually, through crafted writing.
With really good books, a powerful sense of voice is established in the first line. My favorite example is from Douglas Fairbairn's novel, Shoot, which begins with a confrontation in the woods. There are two groups of hunters from different parts of town. One gets shot accidentally, and over time tensions escalate. Later in the book, they meet again in the woods to wage war -- they re-enact Vietnam, essentially. And the story begins this way:
This is what happened.
For me, this has always been the quintessential opening line. It's flat and clean as an affidavit. It establishes just what kind of speaker we're dealing with: someone willing to say, I will tell you the truth. I'll tell you the facts. I'll cut through the bullshit and show you exactly what happened. It suggests that there's an important story here, too, in a way that says to the reader: and you want to know.
A line like "This is what happened," doesn't actually say anything--there's zero action or context -- but it doesn't matter. It's a voice, and an invitation, that's very difficult for me to refuse. It's like finding a good friend who has valuable information to share. Here's somebody, it says, who can provide entertainment, an escape, and maybe even a way of looking at the world that will open your eyes. In fiction, that's irresistible. It's why we read.
We've talked so much about the reader, but you can't forget that the opening line is important to the writer, too. To the person who's actually boots-on-the-ground. Because it's not just the reader's way in, it's the writer's way in also, and you've got to find a doorway that fits us both. I think that's why my books tend to begin as first sentences -- I'll write that opening sentence first, and when I get it right I'll start to think I really have something.
The best first line I ever wrote is the opening of 'Needful Things.' Printed by itself on a page in 20-point type: "You've been here before." All there by itself on one page, inviting the reader to keep reading. It suggests a familiar story.
When I'm starting a book, I compose in bed before I go to sleep. I will lie there in the dark and think. I'll try to write a paragraph. An opening paragraph. And over a period of weeks and months and even years, I'll word and reword it until I'm happy with what I've got. If I can get that first paragraph right, I'll know I can do the book.
Because of this, I think, my first sentences stick with me. They were a doorway I went through. The opening line of 11/22/63 is "I've never been what you'd call a crying man." The opening line of Salem's Lot is "Everybody thought the man and the boy were father and son." See? I remember them! The opening line of It is "The terror that would not end for another 28 years, if it ever did, began so far as I can know or tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain." That's one that I worked over and over and over.
But I can tell you right now that the best first line I ever wrote -- and I learned it from Cain, and learned it from Fairbairn -- is the opening of Needful Things. It's the story about this guy who comes to town, and uses grudges and sleeping animosities among the townspeople to whip everyone up into a frenzy of neighbor against neighbor. And so the story starts off with an opening line, printed by itself on a page in 20-point type:
You've been here before.
All there by itself on one page, inviting the reader to keep reading. It suggests a familiar story; at the same time, the unusual presentation brings us outside the realm of the ordinary. And this, in a way, is a promise of the book that's going to come. The story of neighbor against neighbor is the oldest story in the world, and yet this telling is (I hope) strange and somehow different. Sometimes it's important to find that kind of line: one that encapsulates what's going to happen later without being a big thematic statement.