Is it possible to read this sentence—the opening line to Márquez’s One Hundred years of Solitude—without wondering what follows? Consider all the elements established in this single sentence:
- someone, a colonel, is about to be executed
- at such a time the colonel remembers his father
- the memory is completely innocent: a child’s discovery of the natural world
How important is the opening sentence in a novel? In my mind it’s absolutely critical—perhaps superseded in importance only by the novel’s conclusion. Yet in almost every way, the final passage is incomparable to the opening. The closing sentence completes everything that precedes it, much like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle as it snaps into place. If the finalé is well done it provides satisfaction and generates approval. Yes, we nod with a measure of admiration, that’s exactly how it should end.
The opening, on the other hand, points to a hundred possibilities. It suggests a time, a place, an attitude, a style, a character, some tension, some colour or atmosphere. It hints at the narrative scale, the shape of the canvass, the atmosphere, the politics. It can divine the death of legions or the intimate sexual proclivities of the secret life.
One quality every first line MUST possess is a “catapult” to read the sentence which follows. And the second sentence had better be as brilliant as the first—or employ a device to establish the imaginary world of the novel. The sooner the writer can immerse his audience in the narrative web, the more certain he can be assured of the power of his voice, the characters, the plot and everything we consider integral to the story as it unfolds.
Are there any great novels that begin half-heartedly? Wherein mediocrity is the touchstone? Where the opening is dull or tiresome? Perhaps, but none come to mind. However, turn these questions on end and consider all the wonderful works of fiction that begin with sparkling brilliance. There are hundreds to available, enough to keep you reading for years without a break. (Check here for the 100 Best First Lines of Novels.)
By the way, if you want to read the second line from Márquez’s One Hundred years of Solitude, pick up a copy and read on. One Hundred Years of Solitude