The First Line

by limebirdster

Following on from the Last Lines post, first lines are just as important. If the first line doesn’t grab your reader, then they won’t bother to read the second!

Though it is always possible to trick you reader too. I once read a book which had a brilliant first two pages and then the rest of the book was so bad I couldn’t finish it. But I’d bought it by then so I suppose it didn’t matter so much the to author! I’d even liked the first part so much that I bought the sequel at the same time as the first book and have regretted it ever since!

But a lot rests on the first line, it has a lot of responsibility, which some people deal with by making it as long as a paragraph, cramming as much into it as possible. But the lines that I remember are never extravagant, they have just enough to make you want to keep going. Which is all that a sentence in a story really needs to do, keep you reading until you reach the end.

From memory, without checking the books at all, I can remember 4 first lines that have stuck in my head –

‘In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.’ – The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien.

I like this line because, without reading the story, you have no idea what a hobbit is. You read the next line because you want to know, that’s how it draws you in. If it said ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a short person with hairy feet, an overly ambitious appetite and absolutely no interest in adventure,’ you might not be quite so intrigued to read the rest!

‘It was the day my grandmother exploded.’ – The Crow Road by Iain Banks.

This line is such a bizarre statement that you can’t help but want to find out what on earth happened. Grandmothers don’t usually spontaneously combust so you want an explanation, but you have to read a way past the first line to find it. It’s definitely a line that draws you in and sticks in your head!

‘All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

I know, I know, a bit of a cheat choosing one of the most famous first lines ever, but I actually like the second line of this book more than the first; ‘All was chaos in the Oblonsksy’s house.’ The first paragraph of this book is genuinely funny, at least I thought so. So much so that I had to stop and read it again, because I hadn’t expected it!

When you’re just starting to read a book the size of a telephone directory, mainly because it’s one of those books that you think you should have read rather than because you actually want to read it, it’s a nice surprise to find the writing far funnier and more entertaining than you expected. And no, I still haven’t finished it!

‘The storm had broken.’ Magican by Raymond E Feist.

For some reason the phrase ‘His feet made scant purchase on the rocks,’ from the second line has always stuck in my head as well, so much so that I often think of that as the first line instead. I’m not really sure why that was so memorable to me, but it‘s always one of the firsts openings that I think of.

You may have noticed that this book featured on both my first and last lines posts, and part of that is just because it’s one of my favourite books. But I do think that this is a great first line even if it wasn’t. I like that it’s so short, it gets across all that needs to be said in four words without bogging the reader down in unnecessary details. The story begins just after a storm, that’s all of the set up that this book the size of a doorstop needs.

So, do you have any favourite first lines? Any beginnings that have just stuck in your head and you can’t really work out why? Any ideas of how to start a story so that it sounds like a work of literary genius?

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36 Responses to “The First Line”

  1. Another famous first line but, so what, it grabs you and leads you in the right direction, but also asks so many questions… “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

    For me, similar to your Hobbit example, I love the original opening line of “Stranger In A Strange Land” i.e. prior to the ‘extended cut’ that came out after REH’s death. “”ONCE UPON a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith” It does the same as your example, how could a Martian have a human name? Why start with “Once upon a time”?

  2. Your second favourite is my first!

    As for my stuff, I kinda like to start with a weird bit of dialogue that won’t make sense til later.

  3. And of course it is RAH! (Must have been getting my Robert A. Heinlein’s and my Robert E Howard’s mixed up!)

    • We’ll forgive you this once I suppose 😉

      But that’s a great first line, brings up questions that can only be answered by reading more!

  4. “Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and the most isolated way of having a bad time that has ever been devised.” — Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey In The World

  5. Funny, I just grabbed Magician off my shelf when I was looking for something to read. But then I picked up my new Kindle Fire Sunday and now I’m reading something else. LOL The first line of my current WIP is dialogue. “The Goddess be damned.”

    • I absolutely love Magician! I think dialogue makes a great first line as it means you always begin right in the action, no waiting around for things to happen!

  6. “The time traveller, for so it shall be convenient to speak of him, was expounding a recondite matter to us.”

    Just perfect, because: The sub-clause tells you that the writer is in charge – he knows what he’s doing, which is that he’s going to tell you one of the best stories ever written; it breaks the golden rule that continuous tenses are Not A Good Thing; it makes you wonder if there is a difference is between “expound” and “explain”, and if “recondite” is just another way of saying “complicated”, and then you ask yourself if your English is anywhere near as good as this writer’s. Just a wonderful opening line that leads into a wonderful story.

    Great post Limebirdster!

    • A first line like that would make me throw the book across the room. I’ve got a good vocabulary, but when I hit the word “recondite” I immediately sensed that another, simpler word could have been used, but wasn’t.

      A first Iine is an invitation to read further. It should be inviting, not contrived. It should suggest, not demand.

      Instead of intriguing me, this author wants to put me to work right away, digging out a dictionary to look up the meaning of his pretentious verbiage. Pass!

      Authors who can’t bear to go without baroque language should save it for after the reader is hooked.

      • I see what you mean M. but one thing to remember is that “The Time Machine” was published in 1898. My feeling (not born out by experience, as I’m not that old!) is that the book buying public had a far greater vocabulary in the late Victorian era than is common now.

        I too had too check out the full definition and, as the synonyms are abstruse – obscure – secret – deep, then I actually think that it is the perfect word. A simpler one may have got across one or more of the meanings but recondite gives the full flavour (particularly when one considers what happens later in the novel).

      • Part of me agrees with M.K, that a line like that could have been written with simpler words and that the writer is just showing off a bit, but then just from that one line it reminds me so much of how Anna Kerenina is written that I’m very intrigued to read the rest regardless!

        I think it’s a perfect example of how you can’t please everyone, just one line has one person thinking it’s a work of genius and another throwing it across the room!

        I have to say though, if the whole book was written in the same way I would end up reading it very slowly and only a tiny bit at a time or it would do my head in having to look up so many words!
        But I think you’re right Dennis, if there’s a perfect word for something that people might not be familiar with, it’s better to use that word than to change to something more people will recognise immediately but that doesn’t capture what you’re trying to say as precisely.

  7. The Hobbit is my favorite too. M.J. Hajdin, that one is new but hilarious! I’ll have to check out that book, just for the first line. Great post, thanks!

    • You can call me M. 😉

      The book is actually pretty tragic, but fascinating. It’s the story of Scott’s last expedition to the South Pole, the one from which he never returned. The “worst journey” doesn’t refer to that, though, but to a six-week trip taken during the expedition to Cape Crozier to observe the mating habits of Emperor penguins. It was a total disaster and nearly killed the three men who participated in it; two of them went on to die with Scott a few months later. Cherry-Garrard was the only survivor and suffered all his life from mental illness brought on by his Antarctic experience. And yet he introduces this somber subject with a remarkably light hand. He only wrote one book, but was a gifted writer.

  8. My first thought was the cliched, “It was a dark and stormy night…”

    Great post. Thanks!

    • Ah, Bulwer-Lytton, also the guy who wrote The pen is mightier than the sword! I do like that first line, cheesy and so often plagiarised as it is!

  9. If the first line doesn’t grab me when browsing in a book store, often I’ll put it down.

    • I think a lot of people do the same, I have a weird habit of reading the first line and then, if I like it, I read the first line on the 56th page just to check that it’s still good further on in the book, then if I like both lines I’ll consider buying it!
      But if you’re picking up books at random, everyone pretty much judges by the blurb, the cover, and the first line, and as the writer doesn’t all that much say in the cover, you’ve got to put some work into that first line!

  10. I can’t come up with any off the top of my head, but I know an attention-grabber when I read or write one. It has to be written as if it is winking at you or giving you a “come hither” smile. This is not to say it has to be funny or sexy, just tease you into curiosity about what the next line reveals about questions raised in the first line.

    Maybe the short answer is: a first line subtly raises a compelling question in the reader’s mind that must be answered by reading on.

    • I think your short answer sums everything up pretty perfectly! (Wish I’d thought if it myself, it would’ve made a good ending to this post!)

  11. Fascinating reading. I am a huge fan of Feist, so I love your references to him. My favorite first line is from ‘Cannery Row,’ by John Steinbeck. “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”

    • I’ve never heard that first line before but it really makes me want to read the book! Just the order of the list make the line read like a poem rather than prose, it’s beautiful.

  12. “There was death at its beginning as there would be death again at its end.” The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans. Great opening, worst ending in any novel I have ever read. But I like how he used suspense and the back and forth POVs in the opening chapter. I did something similar in my novel because I like drawing out drama just a wee bit.

  13. “Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason.” The Bell by Iris Murdoch – A-level torture, but the opening stuck with me!

  14. I usually devour books, flipping through them so quickly I’ve actually been known to miss a sentence or two that I catch when I read it again later. That said, I don’t usually remember any specific lines, so there’s only one I recall (probably because it’s so short)

    “Who is John Galt?”

    That said, there was a book (first in a series) that had such a horribly slow and uninteresting beginning that I almost didn’t read it. I finally tried it again during a bit of insomnia and ended up reading the whole series in about 2 weeks (I had to go buy them, or it would have taken less time). So, a bad start is redeemable, but not often.

  15. Oh, I nearly forgot. I don’t remember the specific wording, but there was an opening to a book that involved magical ape-like creatures throwing their own flaming poo at the fleeing hero. It was a memorable scene (it was also REALLY funny the way it was written – I’d copy the passage here, but I’d have to go find it amongst our zillion other books).

    • I’m now randomly googling “ape-like creatures throwing flaming poo” so far, no success! But it sounds like a great beginning, a funny story is a great attention grabber, especially when it feature magical ape-like creatures!

  16. “I knew opening that red door would destroy my life.” Harlan Coben’s Caught blew me away. The entire book was just as deliciously tantalizing.

    • I’ve only ever read one book by Harlan Coben (Gone for good) and it genuinely scared me! But the first line of that book was similar:

      “Three days before her death, my mother told me – these weren’t her last words, but they were pretty close – that my brother was still alive.”

      I think he’s very good at opening lines, he basically gives you a massive spoiler for the book and you read it to find out how it’s going to happen!

  17. Oh for an edit function! “I too had too check out…”

  18. I tend to drop you into an action that will require you to read on just to find out what happened. In my latest, Starshot, I am starting of with a forward (a fictional one) to explain why this tale of a Rockstar’s life came about. It’s a bit different – but I like it…
    Since I read so much – I often do not require a snappy opening line to read a book. I am planning to read it anyway…

  19. I had to look this one up, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984

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