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15 great opening lines worth a close read

It was a dark and stormy night. Well, that’s a start. But a truly great opening line contains volumes of meaning in a single sentence (or two)—and may even raise more questions than it answers. What observations can your students make from a close read of these classics?

Insight

“You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you.” —The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston
Questions to consider
Is this narrator reliable?
How can you tell?

“All this happened, more or less.” —Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
Questions to consider
Is this narrator more reliable?
How can you tell?

“Hide the Christmas tree carefully, Helen.” —A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen
Question to consider
What inferences can you made from the words “hide,” “Christmas,” “carefully,” and “Helen”?

“People trust me with their secrets. But who do I trust with mine? You. Only you.” —Notes on a Scandal (2006 film based on novel by Zoë Heller)
Question to consider
What do we know about this narrator?

“Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself.”
—Go Tell It On the Mountain, James Baldwin

Question to consider
What can we infer about John’s community?

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
—1984, George Orwell

Question to consider
What one word tells us something is OFF?

“I was born with water on the brain.”
—The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie

Question to consider
Is the author using figurative language here? Or is it literal? Is there more than one possible meaning?

“What came first, the music or the misery?”
— High Fidelity (2000 film)

Question to consider
What can we infer about the narrator?

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”
—I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
Question to consider
What do you know—or wonder—about the narrator? What does “this” refer to?

“Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.”
—The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison

Question to consider
What effect does “quiet as it’s kept” have on the meaning or mood of the rest of the sentence?

“Oh, America. I wish I could tell you that this was still America, but I’ve come to realize that you can’t have a country with no people. And there are no people here.” — Zombieland (2009 film)
Question to consider
How does the writer use understatement to convey suspense?

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” —The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
Question to consider
What mood does the mention of the Rosenbergs insert into the line, even if you don’t know who they are?

“What have you done with the scissors?” —The Homecoming, Harold Pinter
Question to consider
What makes this simple-on-its-face sentence sound sinister?

“Who am I? You sure you want to know?” —Spider-Man (2002 film)
Questions to consider
How does the writer let us know we’re entering on a conversation that’s already started?
How does the writer convey suspense?

“There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening.” — A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
Questions to consider
How can you understand this sentence even though some of the words are unfamiliar?
What other words help you out?

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