That All-Important First Line

writer thinkingLet’s talk about the opening line of your book. The first thing to know about “first lines” is that they are not going to make or break you. Sure, it’s a lot of fun coming up with great ones. But as long as the first line makes someone want to read the second line, and that line makes you want to read the third… you’re on the right track.
 
The second thing to know is that the opening line might be the very last thing you write before your book is finished.
 
That said… don’t you just love a great opening line?
 
The fun thing about writing a book is that you get to choose what kind of opening line you want, what type of sentence appropriately sets up your book. You can choose to set a stage or create a setting. You can reveal a character. You can drop the reader into the middle of a scene. You can introduce conflict. You can have your character speak a line of dialogue. There’s no one right way to do it.
 
Today I looked at some of my favorite first lines from novels, and asked myself why I liked them. I found each one appealed to me for a different reason. It might have:

  • been clever
  • been thought-provoking
  • brought an immediate smile (or stab) of recognition
  • struck me as poignant
  • painted a really cool word picture
  • set up an intriguing mystery
  • introduced a character I want to know better
  • made me laugh
  • drawn me into an unfamiliar world
  • used words in a beautiful way

The one thing they all have in common is they make me want to read more. They immediately draw me into the universe of the novel by the unique voice that first line begins to establish.
 
One of the trends lately is to come up with stunningly clever first lines, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But not every novel requires one of those. Some need a more understated approach.
 
Some say the best first lines introduce conflict right away. I believe that can be true, but it’s not the only way to write a first line. Most of my favorites give a small hint that something is going to go wrong, or something already has gone wrong.
 
There’s no formula for a first line. It should elicit interest, pique something in the reader, speak to their heart or their intellect or their funny bone. It just has to work. Some of the best opening lines stand remarkably well on their own, having enough meat to allow you to chew on it awhile.
 
Here are a few popular opening lines from famous novels:

 
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
~ Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (my favorite first line ever)
 
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
~ Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice
 
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
~ J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
 
Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.
~ Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups
 
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
~ William Gibson, Neuromancer
 
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
~ Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
 
All this happened, more or less.
~ Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
 
Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.
~ Anita Brookner, The Debut
 
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
~ C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
 
A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.
~ Graham Greene, The End of the Affair
 

What is one of your favorite first lines?

 

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Image copyright: olegdudko / 123RF Stock Photo

 

  1. Chris says:

    One of the best that I have seen in long time was from Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

    “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.”

  2. Dee Spencer says:

    Today mother died (The Outsider: Albert Camus).

  3. “Call me Ishmael.”

  4. Geoff Mehl says:

    Our bellies were full, but our souls were starving.

  5. John Wells says:

    My favorite is also one of the longest (translated) first lines in literature. A Tale of Two Cities, of course.

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

    • John Wells says:

      For short first lines, my favorite is Anna Karenina:
      “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

  6. Abbe Hoggan says:

    There are two that I love:

    “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught in her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” (Gone with the Wind) – Introduces the main character in a memorable and unusual way.

    “Last night I dreamt I wend to Manderley again.” (Rebecca) – Sets a tone of loss and melancholy that permeates the whole book.

  7. Elissa says:

    “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

  8. Roger Floyd says:

    Your second point about the first line being the last thing you write is so true, at least as far as I’m concerned. I’ve finished three novels, and the most common place I still revise is the first page, frequently the first line. I’ve tried several first lines for all three novels. But there comes a time when you just have to stop fooling around and see what works.

  9. Laura says:

    When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. To Kill a Mockingbird

    I like it, because it seems as if your grandmother has sat down to tell you an interesting story of the day.

  10. “Marley was dead, to begin with.” (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

    I also like the first lines of Cry, the Beloved Country and Charlotte’s Web.

  11. “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

  12. Abby Norman says:

    The first line of a Prayer for Owen Meany: “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

  13. Rachelle, I agree. First lines are as important as the story “hook.” I still go back to Jim Bell’s first line, which goes something like this: “‘Get out of my house,’ the nun said, and hit me in the mouth.”

  14. Martha Reynolds says:

    “You better not never tell nobody but God.”

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