First lines and all that

I’ve been on a fiction reading tear of late and, like Jim, excited by several manuscripts that have landed in my inbox since the beginning of the year.  Because, as we’ve mentioned countless times in this blog, it’s relatively rare (percentage wise, that is) for us to fall in love with a novel to a degree that makes us want to represent it, I’ve been (again, like Jim) wondering why this sudden embarrassment of riches.  I’ve actually been reviewing my “process” in order to try and figure out what about these novels grabbed me in the first place.

Then, I came upon this piece in the Huffington Post and remembered how insidiously effective a great first line is.  Not all first lines are as pithy as “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” or “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,”  of course, but a well crafted opening in a novel immediately grabs you by the metaphorical lapels, drags you into a comfortable chair, and forces you to keep turning pages until, hopefully, you reach a satisfying conclusion.  Sometimes it’s not until you reach that last page that you turn back to the beginning and see how everything was presaged and encapsulated in that first sentence (or two).

I know that I’m not communicating anything new here (we’ve even had a first lines contest on this blog) and that all of you avid readers have had the experience I describe above numerous times, but I think it’s necessary for all authors and those of us who work with authors to remind ourselves how crucial a novel’s opening salvo is.  Once you nail that, I’m pretty sure the rest of the novel just writes itself.  (Kidding…or am I?)

What are your favorite first lines?   One of mine is “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”

16 Responses to First lines and all that

  1. That’s easy: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” :)

  2. Ken D. says:

    Gilead, Marilynne Robinson:

    I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think your old.

  3. E.S. Moore says:

    For some reason, “The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.” from Jim Butcher’s BLOOD RITES has always struck me as a good opening line. It says so much about the character without really saying anything!

  4. Gina Black says:

    Totally an Austen girl when it comes to my fav first line:

    It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

  5. Silver James says:

    From Mary Stewart’s THE MOONSPINNERS (one of my all-time favorite books and opening lines!)

    “It was the egret, flying out of the lemon-grove, that started it.”

  6. It rained toads the day the White Council came to town.

    Summer Knight, by Jim Butcher

  7. Ciara says:

    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. (Also my favourite book!)

  8. I’m with Ciara – I haven’t read The Bell Jar in 15 years, but the first line still sticks in my head.

  9. Miriam says:

    Definitely. All of these first lines are making me want to read or re-read all these books. They make you want to dive right in.

  10. Eric Christopherson says:

    “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.”

    The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

  11. Ara Burklund says:

    “Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theater.”
    –The World According to Garp, John Irving

  12. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez over twenty years ago, and its opening line haunts me still:

    Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

    Another favorite, though far less well known, is from A House of Many Rooms, by Rodello Hunter (the first book I ever stayed up all night reading):

    The house told the story of the family.

    And though you didn’t mention it, perhaps the best closing line(s) in the history of fiction are from Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White:

    It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.

  13. Nan says:

    Most recently, “Sometimes a mayfly skates across a pond, leaving a brief wake as thin as spider silk, and by staying low avoids those birds and bats that feed in flight.” – The Good Guy, Dean Koontz

    Thanks for the link.

  14. Rowenna says:

    I admit, The Bears of Blue River by Charles Major has a ridiculously verbose opening line that’s a bit of an info dump (not to mention a core storyline about, um, hunting bears that would make steam come out the communal ears of the ASPCA). But it still whispers “adventure” and “history” to me from its place in my childhood:

    Away back in the “twenties,” when Indiana was a baby state, and great forests of tall trees and tangled underbrush darkened what are now her bright plains and sunny hills, there stood upon the east bank of Big Blue River, a mile or two north of the point where that stream crosses the Michigan road, a cozy log cabin of two rooms—one front and one back.

  15. I’m a sucker for the opening lines of classics like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and MOBY-DICK, but for more recent novels, SPIN by Robert Charles Wilson has one of my favorites: “Everybody falls, and we all land somewhere.”

    And both the openings of SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE amaze me. Probably why these last two books are my favorites.

    And if nothing else hammers home the importance of a great first line, go read the first paragraph contest entries Nathan Bransford hosted on his blog a week or two ago. It helps you understand what stands out in the flood.

  16. Yahzi says:

    “We’ll never know if they were intelligent.”

    The Puppet Masters by Heinlein. Not the greatest novel, but certainly one of the most intriguing opening sentences ever.

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