That All-Important First Line
Let’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.
I took a look 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
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[…] Melissa Donovan gives writers 21 ways to improve your writing, while Rachelle Gardner concentrates on that all-important first line. […]
The remnant-band of Aztecs which Bluey discovered had been depressed, but it took him only a moment to realize that the appropriate encouragement was not, “Take heart!”
The trickling water inside the bathroom, erected in the middle of the brick house, overshadowed the noise outside, but I thought that I heard something.
Would you like to read the next line?
Scared to death to post my first comment on an agent’s site.Loved a lot of these stories; and some I’ve read more than once. Thank you for these thoughts and insights.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
Most of these are my favorites, too. Here are two more I love:
From Jane Eyre: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”
I love how the author drops you right into the story.
From Snow Falling on Cedars: “The accused man, Kabuo Miyamoto, sat proudly upright with a rigid grace, his palms placed softly on the defendant’s table–the posture of a man who has detached himself insofar as this is possible at his own trial.”
I’m not a big fan of adverbs, but I do really like the word softly here as it seems such a contrast to the rest of the sentence.
I love clever. And beautiful. Especially both combined.
One of my favorite first lines, to this day, is:
Mick Brannigan’s daddy only gave him one piece of advice when he was growing up, but he gave it to him on a number of occasions. He said, “Son, you need to sit down and shut up.” (the great turning points in Mick’s life almost always hinged on things he wished he hadn’t said, and yet it still came as a surprise to him when something he said got him dragged off the top of a twelve-story building and cost hi his job…)
I’m going to cheat and do the first two lines but they are ones that have always stuck with me from the first time I read them.
“”Repeat after me,” said the parson. “I, Horatio take thee Maria Elon –”
The thought came up in Hornblower’s mind that these were the last few seconds which he could withdraw from something he knew to be ill-considered.”
Scared to death to post my first comment on an agent’s site.
Loved a lot of these stories; and some I’ve read more than once. Thank you for these thoughts and insights.
I love a good opening line. It has to set just the right tone. I agree about overly clever lines not really fitting.
One of my favorite opening lines is from The Gunslinger: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” I wouldn’t call it clever, but it stuck with me.
Several of the ones previously mentioned are some of my favorites, as well.
The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. The Red Badge of Courage
I’ve always wondered, what’s wrong with “It was a dark and stormy night”? Seriously.
Nice piece, Rachel. Love me some first lines.
I was very proud of the clever opening to my upcoming novel (my fourth book) … until Chuck Palahniuk told me it was TOO clever during a workshop session this past spring. He said the NEXT line was more gripping and really set the scene/story, and that I should never cut good tension with cleverness. I took his advice because the first rule of Chuck Palahniuk is you listen to Chuck Palahniuk (when you’ve been lucky enough to have him select you for his first ever writing workshop!)
As for my favorite opening lines in all of literature, I blogged about them a while back. Twice actually. Below is a link to the second one, (which contains a link to the first one, for those who want to see more). You’ll find many of the lines you included in your post!
Oops — just realized I provided the wrong link earlier. (This is why I rarely post blog comments in the a.m.) Here is the CORRECT link to “25 of the Best Opening Lines in Literature” …
“I am a lazy man.”
— from “The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment” by Thaddeus Goalas
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.”
Today mother died (The Outsider: Albert Camus).
“Call me Ishmael.”
Our bellies were full, but our souls were starving.
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.
For short first lines, my favorite is Anna Karenina:
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
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.
The first line from Rebecca is my favorite too.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.”
That’s one of my favorites!
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.”
“You better not never tell nobody but God.”