A Look at First Lines

As a reader, I barely noticed first lines. But as a writer… obsession.

Some of us are convinced they should dazzle, enchant, draw a reader in on a gilded thread of perfect words. They should make the reader sit up and take notice.

Yikes. Do all first lines really and truly have to do that? Could one or two make the reader lie back and swing gently in a hammock instead? Maybe some first lines could humbly disappear into the second, and then the third, until the reader’s finished the entire page before they knew it.

The Martian has a great one: “I’m pretty much fucked.” It’s funny and sums up the book’s plot. But it would not suit, say, A Tale of Two Cities. I think Dickens made the right choice to go with: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” and so on. That one goes on for a while.

First lines accomplish what we choose as writers. They can be passive summaries, in-scene action or dialog, descriptions of setting, evocations of theme. Many first lines don’t show their true power until you’ve finished the first paragraph, or even the whole story.

I pulled a few books of varying genres off my bookshelf to look at their first lines. This isn’t a ‘top ten best first lines’ thing, but a useful exercise in looking at what others have done. Also, I included far far more than ten first lines here.

I hope you enjoy!

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.
Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng

Instantly intriguing. Ms Ng starts the book off with a powerful event, and with the dramatic irony of you knowing much more than the characters.

I sent one boy to the gas chamber at Huntsville. One and only one.
No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy

I don’t know how, but with these simple lines Cormac McCarthy conveys the narrator’s strong feeling behind this event. Is the feeling guilt? Regret? Does this weigh on his conscience, or is there a sense of pride with the ‘one and only one’? You’ll have to read on to find out.

Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?
The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemison

BOOM! I love Ms Jemison’s confidence, and wish I had it.

She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance.
The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje

You would not guess from this first line the gut wrenching, beautiful, poetic, and sad story awaiting you. I’ve read The English Patient at least four times. (I’m a sucker for war-time historical fiction.)

At 19.00 hours, ship’s time, I made my way to the launching bay.
Solaris, Stanislaw Lem

Another one. I don’t see a hint in this line of the mind fuck that is this (awesome) book. I read it ten years ago and still think about it often.

All this happened, more or less.
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

Sure, it doesn’t seem to say much, but it’s voicey. Informal. A little unreliable maybe with the ‘more or less’. We know we are going to be told a story, and we know we are dealing with a narrator who is not exactly Mr Long-winded Pontificator here.

The first time ever I saw Sheba was on a Monday morning, early in the winter term of 1996.
Notes on a Scandal, Zoe Heller

This line just does all the work. There’s a little teeny bit of voice in here, a hint of obsession with ‘the first time ever I saw Sheba’, and she’s got time and setting in there too. Well done, Ms Heller.

And to compare a similarly-structured line:

The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.
The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler

I get the impression that this narrator, Philip Marlowe, is not at all enamored of the subject of his gaze, don’t you?

When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture of Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami

This starts ‘in scene’ as they say. Quite quickly, Murakami establishes our unlikely hero–an unassuming man making pasta–just before sending him on the strangest, darkest adventure. There’s a nod here to noir detective stories, and the inciting incident is right there in the first line.

Time is a not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space.
Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood

Ooooh, this is the kind of stuff I like. Moody, thematic, and yes, a story that jumps around in time.

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie.
The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold

At first glance, this is kind of cute. Susie Salmon? What a great name. And then you think: Hold up, why the past tense ‘was’? You will know by the end of the first paragraph. I never met a single person who didn’t highly rate this book.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita is in my top three favorite books, perhaps in first place. It was so hard to not paste in the rest of the opening paragraph. Beautifully written, and to me, some of the most beautiful writing ever, and yet it’s so disturbing! This is Humpbert Humpbert’s head after all, a perfection of (a twisted) character voice.

The man billed as Prospero the Enchanter receives a fair amount of correspondence via the theater office, but this is the first envelope addressed to him that contains a suicide note, and it is also the first to arrive carefully pinned to the coat of a five-year-old girl.
The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

You know right from this first sentence if this book is for you or not, IMO.

All children, except one, grow up.
Peter Pan, J.M. Barre

Is there anything that needs to be said here?

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.
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

This fills me with joy. I can remember first reading this in high school, and how marvelous it was.

Life changes fast.
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion

So much in those three words. It’s understated, thematic, and the more you read of Ms Didion’s memoir of the year following her husband’s sudden death, the more powerful and evocative those three words become.

My name is Kathy H.
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

Every choice Mr Ishiguro makes is deliberate. Every sentence, he crafts with care. There’s a reason this book starts so simply, and there’s very little you know about Kathy in the beginning. There’s not much Kathy knows about herself, you see.

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.
There Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

Well that’s achingly beautiful.

I always get the shakes before a drop.
Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein

Character, setting, tension, and some world building in there too with the military slang ‘the shakes’ and ‘a drop’.

I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.
The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseni

Oh how this fills me with dread. It’s the use of ‘what’ rather than ‘who’, and that he is still experiencing the consequences of whatever happened to him at the age of twelve.

This is my favorite book in the world, though I have never read it.
The Princess Bride, William Goldman

Intriguing again!

Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmond and Lucy.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

Simplicity can sometimes be the best.

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Craft books

Apparently there are some writers out there who don’t read. They write. Of course they do. All the time. They work really hard on their writing.

But. They. Don’t. Read.

Jack Nicholsom

I have strong feelings about this but there’s no point going into all that. I would just sound like a judgmental old lady, sitting on my porch with a scowl and a corn cob pipe and yelling at elementary school kids to do something useful with their lives. After all, who am I to say what the best path is for any other writer?

I do believe there’s a point of intersection between the readers and non readers, and that is craft books. It seems to me that both writers who read and writers who don’t read (buckets of tears, the magician’s apprentice in Fantasia amount of tears) do tend to read writing craft books. Most of them are structured so that you don’t have to start from page one and go straight through to page nine hundred and fifty three. They can be perused. Dipped into. And the best of them are fun to read.

Here’s a selection of my favorites, that I would recommend to all:

Big Magic – Elizabeth Gilbert This is sort of a self help for writers and artists. I found this book to be both a gentle push to keep going, a shoulder to cry on, and a big loving hug. “What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success essentially become irrelevant?”

Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott A classic in inspiration. Part memoir, part encouragement to start with a shitty first draft and keep going little by little, Anne Lamott’s warm encouragement is like a mug of hot chocolate for your writing soul.

On Writing – Stephen King This is the other big one that nearly everyone recommends. For a reason! It is an easy and compelling read, full of straight-talking solid advice.

Wonderbook – Jeff Vandermeer One to purchase for your home library if you can afford it. This has simply gorgeous full color illustrations. Fun diagrams of tension and maps about plot and tables of writing styles. My favorite part of it are the interviews and essays by other authors, such as Lev Grossman’s essay about his long road to publishing the Magicians and GRR Martin discussing his disregard of magic systems. This book taught me a lot about first lines, opening scenes, how to cut scenes, end scenes and so much more.

John Truby’s Anatomy of a Story This book changed my life. It is more about screenwriting and uses old-fashioned examples of great screenplays (Casablanca, the Godfather) but this book explained character weakness and need to me finally and thoroughly and I got it and my story telling ability rocketed into the stratosphere.

Self Editing for Fiction Writers: How to edit yourself into print A nice change. This is an editing book by editors. Chock full of excellent advice and examples. Way better than simplistic writing and editing tips posted on twitter.