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“It Was the Best of Times…”: On First Lines

I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings recently. Maybe because I’ve been rereading a lot of old favorites; maybe because my own book has almost reached what I’m realistically calling the first-third mark, the point where my character will move from the small world that he’s pretty well learned the rules of into the Big Bad One, and my game plan after I finish this chapter is to go back and revisit that first third and see how it hangs together. Maybe just because the students in my sociology writing seminar have to write draft introductions this coming week, and I’ve been dealing with a lot of anxious students exclaiming versions of the same thing: “But – but I don’t write the introduction until the end!”

I’d guess that’s probably true for professional authors, too, whatever kind of fiction they write: the first lines are probably among the last to be declared “finished.” Because as we all know, beginnings carry a certain extra weight. Beginnings have to draw the reader in, and set up everything that’s to come: although none of us expects that a first chapter will tell us everything that’s going to happen in the book (and would probably be pretty annoyed if it did), I think all of us have had the experience of going back to the first chapter of a beloved book and saying “Of course the story starts there. Where else could it start?”

First lines have particular pressure on them: to a busy reader, after all, a good first line can make or break a book. I’ve carried around the same first line for my own novel-in-progress since its earliest drafty beginnings, on a cross-country flight almost 6 years ago. But I’d never really sat down and tried to consider what makes first lines “work” – so last weekend, with nothing better to do, Husband and I started pulling books off our shelves and trading opening lines.

We discovered a few things, in the course of our examinations: the best first lines, it seemed to us, shared a few traits in common.

  1. They were relatively short (though that might have had something to do with us reading them aloud).
  2. They avoided packing in too many proper nouns, particularly proper nouns of places that don’t have any intrinsic meaning to a new reader (I’m looking at you, here, sci-fi and fantasy writers).
  3. They set the tone of the book immediately.

Of course, I don’t expect you to take my word for this; I’ve typed up 45 of our first line candidates below, in no particular order (except for maybe vaguely by genre, based on how we pulled them off the shelves). To be part of this sample, my only qualifications were that 1) the book had to be one I’d read all the way through and 2) all I could look at was the first line (with one exception, where the first line is a line of dialogue that is technically two sentences.) In examining these, I’ve found that first lines seem to more or less take one of three main approaches – focusing on character, plot, or setting – and that the best ones are those that do one of these things well, and also take steps to somehow set the tone.

Starting with character seems to be a common approach for children’s books, which often start with a recitation of the names of main characters, maybe with some setting mixed in. C.S. Lewis does this with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: “Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.” There’s a similar feel to Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and to The Phantom Tollbooth: both of these introduce the protagonist in a fairly straightforward way without giving you a whole lot more about them than their name. I’d guess the goal is to let the child know immediately who they’re supposed to root for; kids’ books don’t typically have prologues (or, if they do, they tend to be like the prologue of Clive Barker’s Abarat, more of a young adult book, which introduces the heroine who’ll be coming back later). This also seems to be a common practice for big books that are going to span a huge range of characters and want to make sure you know who the real protagonist is from the beginning, like Justin Cronin’s The Passage:

Before she became the Girl From Nowhere – the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years – she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy.

Starting with plot is, I suspect, the mark of many thrillers and horror stories. If you have an explosion in the first line, your readers know that big stuff is sure to follow. Since I’ve got a lot of post-apocalyptic books on my shelf, I expected I’d find more of these, but my sample didn’t turn up that many. A few gems, though, including this one from PD James’s The Children of Men:

Early this morning, 1 January 2021, three minutes after midnight, the last human being to be born on earth was killed in a pub brawl in a suburb of Buenos Aires, aged twenty-five years, two months and twelve days.

Whether you interpret this plot twist the way James intends it (that infertility has descended on the whole human race) or as something else (maybe humans have left Earth forever?), it certainly raises questions enough to keep you reading. Starting with dialogue is a good way to combine a focus on character and plot – although, if you’re talking a prologue, the people talking may not be long for the book-world…

“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.” (Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game)

 “We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildlings are dead.” (George RR Martin, A Game of Thrones)

 Starting with setting seems to be a fairly common practice in a range of genres, both the sci-fi and fantasy stuff that I read and more “literary” fiction. Instead of laying out who the reader’s supposed to identify with or root for, or getting our blood racing with an explosion, these books start by orienting us to where we are. Douglas Adams does this in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; Stephen King does it in The Stand; Ursula LeGuin does it in Wizard of Earthsea, and George Orwell catches the readers’ attention with a more-mundane-than-it-looks detail, unexplained, at the beginning of 1984:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

 You could even say that the granddaddy of all first lines falls into the setting category, in a broad way:

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. (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)

Combining setting and plot can work well, but can also leave you drowning in proper nouns, as in this example from Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow:

On December 7, 2059, Emilio Sandoz was released from the isolation ward of Salvator Mundi Hospital in the middle of the night and transported in a bread van to the Jesuit Residence at Number 5 Borgo Santo Spìrito, a few minutes’ walk across St. Peter’s Square from the Vatican.

Finally, we get to my elusive quality of tone. For me, these are the ones that jump off the page, the ones that not only draw you in but give you some sense of what’s to come, that not only set the stage but hint about what kind of story this is going to be. I find that these tend to crop up most in books that have a strong narrative voice (more on that in a moment), but really, they appear in a range of different places. Stephen King gives us one to launch his Dark Tower series in The Gunslinger:

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

We meet 2 major characters here; we get a sense of plot; and we know a little about the feel of the world, feel a bit of the inevitability of this hunt. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 does something similar (“It was a pleasure to burn”); so does Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife”), and Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (“I always get the shakes before a drop”).

The one that struck home with me, though —  undoubtedly because they’re the ones closest in style to what I’m doing in my own book — are the quasi-memoir-style beginnings, the ones that reach out and speak directly to the reader about the story that’s coming. These tend to be written in first-person, and they tend to tell us not so much about the setting or the characters as they do about our hero: the way she or he is approaching the storytelling process. For Bryce Courtenay’s narrator in The Power of One, the story launches with “This is what happened.” For Anita Diamant’s in The Red Tent, it’s “We have been lost to each other for so long.” In Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart, which might walk the edge of being too wordy for a first line, we get a sense of the world the character’s moving in along with her personal voice as she introduces her story:

Lest anyone should suppose that I am a cuckoo’s child, got on the wrong side of the blanket by lusty peasant stock and sold into indenture in a shortfallen season, I may say that I am House-born and reared in the Night Court proper, for all the good it did me.

All this, of course, brings me circling back to my own first line. It’s firmly in the biographic style, on the short side (closest to Courtenay or Diamant), and I’d like to think it gives readers a taste of the character’s voice as well as the sense that they’re walking into a big, big tale. At this point, I’m thinking it’ll stay where it is even when I start that revision, but it may still change — because as my students pointed out, you don’t really finish writing your introduction until the end.

In the meantime, I guess I’ll just have to go back to the bookstore and start picking things off the shelf and seeing which ones I fall into.

The Big List of First Lines:

  • Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. (C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)
  • My name is Jake. (K.A. Applegate, Animorphs #1: The Invasion)
  • Mrs. Frisby, the head of a family of field mice, lived in an underground house in the vegetable garden of a farmer named Mr. Fitzgibbon. (Robert C. O’Brien, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH)
  •  “I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.” (Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game)
  • On December 7, 2059, Emilio Sandoz was released from the isolation ward of Salvator Mundi Hospital in the middle of the night and transported in a bread van to the Jesuit Residence at Number 5 Borgo Santo Spìrito, a few minutes’ walk across St. Peter’s Square from the Vatican. (Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow)
  • Hapscomb’s Texaco sat on US 93 just north of Arnette, a pissant four-street burg about 110 miles from Houston. (Stephen King, The Stand, 1978 edition)
  • On September 15th, 1981, a boy named Jack Sawyer stood where the water and land come together, hands in the pockets of his jeans, looking out at the steady Atlantic. (Stephen King & Peter Straub, The Talisman)
  • 3 May, Bistritz. Left Munich at 8:35 P.M., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late. (Bram Stoker, Dracula)
  • It was a dark and stormy night. (Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time)
  • The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain. (Stephen King, It)
  • It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. (Roald Dahl, Matilda)
  • There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself – not just sometimes, but always. (Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth)
  • Lest anyone should suppose that I am a cuckoo’s child, got on the wrong side of the blanket by lusty peasant stock and sold into indenture in a shortfallen season, I may say that I am House-born and reared in the Night Court proper, for all the good it did me. (Jacqueline Carey, Kushiel’s Dart)
  • Rain fell that night, a fine, whispering rain. (Cornelia Funke, Inkheart)
  • “We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildlings are dead.” (George RR Martin, A Game of Thrones)
  • The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed. (Stephen King, The Dark Tower #1: The Gunslinger)
  • I always get the shakes before a drop. (Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers)
  • CLARE: It’s hard being left behind. (Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife)
  • In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. (JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit)
  • The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. (Ursula K. LeGuin, Wizard of Earthsea)
  • Shadow had done three years in prison. (Neil Gaiman, American Gods)
  • It was night again. (Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind)
  • Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the uncharted end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. (Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
  • 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. (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)
  • The primroses were over. (Richard Adams, Watership Down)
  • There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. (Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book)
  • When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. (Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird)
  • 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. (John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany)
  • Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theater. (John Irving, The World According to Garp)
  • “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. (E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web)
  • This is what happened. (Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One)
  • The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it. (Anna Sewell, Black Beauty)
  • We have been lost to each other for so long. (Anita Diamant, The Red Tent)
  • Ash fell from the sky. (Brandon Sanderson, Mistborn)
  • There was once a young man who wished to gain his Heart’s Desire. (Neil Gaiman, Stardust)
  • In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul. (Frank Herbert, Dune)
  • It was a pleasure to burn. (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451)
  • A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. (Aldous Huxley, Brave New World)
  • I had my recurring dream last night. (Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower)
  • It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened. (Lois Lowry, The Giver)
  • In Fort Repose, a river town in Central Florida, it was said that sending a message by Western Union was the same as broadcasting it over the combined networks. (Pat Frank, Alas, Babylon)
  • It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (George Orwell, 1984)
  • Snowman wakes before dawn. (Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake)
  • Early this morning, 1 January 2021, three minutes after midnight, the last human being to be born on earth was killed in a pub brawl in a suburb of Buenos Aires, aged twenty-five years, two months and twelve days. (PD James, The Children of Men)
  • The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what happened. (Robert Jordan, The Wheel of Time #1: The Eye of the World)
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7 Comments

  1. Brian the Tall

     /  October 20, 2012

    Your, “Of course the story starts there. Where else could it start?” Comment amuses me, given your first line =P

    So… I’m not sure I agree with you about first lines. That’s allowed, obviously, tastes and all that, but part of the reason I mention it is because I’m not certain I can pinpoint what exactly I disagree with. On a small level, I think part of it is that I often like longer opening lines that play out a moment or a space (often filled with proper nouns =P), and that that’s what I’m getting caught on, but I think deeper it’s that, while I agree first lines can pack a punch, I have kind of a visceral reaction to the idea of “oh man first lines are SOOOOOO important they set the themes and the tone and they’re what matter.” Which is a caricature, of course, but it reminds me of a certain Film-loving/Soc-studying mutual friend of ours who I used to live with, for whom first lines were a Big Deal.

    I think really I don’t super much like to cut the first line out of a work, because so often the first line is part of a larger moment, which, I think, is also why I’m slightly off-put by the idea of shorter first lines being “better”; my hypothesis (which I’m constructing as I write this, if you can’t tell =P), is that really, short first lines are much more likely to be pithy and stand on their own. It’s a much more time consuming experiment to conduct, but I might suggest that if one was to read the first chapter, or even scene, of a bunch of books, the perception of not only which has the strongest opening all-told, but even their first lines, might change. And I think the reason for that is because I 100%, *completely* agree that the goal of a first line is to set the tone of the work, which I think can be played out in how it flows into the rest of the opening (and the work itself).

    Overall it’s interesting to think about. I’ve got a lot more first lines than is proportional to the work I’ve done, but I thought I’d share some:

    “Silence.”
    “In the depths of space, two soldiers lay awake and contemplated death.”
    “3rd of Esunar, 1276 Anna Kehjistani; Dark tales from the west tell of a city deep in the desert, plagued with misfortune.”
    “The ship fell, the sky caught fire, and though none there yet knew it, Oberon’s Dream began to die.”
    “There was a time of heroes; of queens and champions, of blood stained iron and poisoned fates, of monsters… and worse things.”

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    • I think you’re right, that the obvious problem with our strategy (besides the fact that we were reading things out loud, which prejudices one toward “short”) was that first paragraphs are a different proposition than first lines. If I had more time today, I’d go back over my 45 choices and see which of them was improved by the rest of the first paragraph 😉 I think the first paragraph/scene in a novel is probably even more consequential than the first line (when I was trying to hammer my story into a “real book,” that logic was how I knew where to start) — in several cases, I’ve told friends in writing groups that whoever we meet first (discounting prologues, which are a slightly different beast) had best be a major character. There are books (and movies) that don’t follow this rule, but I know — going back to Star Wars again — George Lucas argues that New Hope is really the droids’ story, and you can tell because they’re the first characters you meet.

      By that logic, the space opera story I wrote with my friend is technically the story of the ship’s captain — which I could buy, actually — but then again, the first four scenes of that book introduce the four protagonists, so I think that’s a bit different.

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  2. (This is Jessica, of sister-to-Brian fame.) I think I’m with Brian, that I’m not sure how much I think it’s purely the first line that’s important versus the first, uh… bit. Could be a sentence, or two, or a paragraph or a whole page. For instance, I think the whole first paragraph of The Hobbit is really what’s compelling rather than just that first sentence:
    “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. ”

    I think Butler is great at first bits:
    “Alive!
    Still alive.
    Alive… again.
    Awakening was hard, as always, The ultimate disappointment.” – Dawn

    “I slipped into my first metamorphosis so quietly that no one noticed.” – Imago

    “Doro discovered the woman by accident when he went to see what was left of one of his seed villages.” – Wild Seed

    “I was in my bedroom reading a novel when somebody came banging on the door really loud, like the police. I thought it was the police until I got up, looked out the window, and saw one of Rina’s johns standing there.” – Mind of My Mind (technically from the first chapter rather than the prologue, but it’s the first you get of the MC’s voice)

    A few randoms from my shelves:
    “If you go to Antigua as a tourist, this is what you will see.” – A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid (does nonfiction count?)

    “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” – Beloved by Toni Morrison

    “In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.” – Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

    “I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my first recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees.
    I recall, in the orchard behind the house, orbs of flames rising through the black boughs and branches; they climbed, spiritous, and flickered out; my mother squeezed my hand with delight.” – The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party by M. T. Anderson

    A perennial favorite:
    “The unicorn lived in a lilac wood and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.” – The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle

    Okay… I’m beginning to see how your list got so long! But you can see my tastes – only a couple of these favorites beginning are just one line.

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    • Butler is pretty awesome, it’s true. One that surprised us a little (given Gaiman’s mastery of language overall) was American Gods, which takes, comparatively, quite a while to get itself rolling:

      “Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough, and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.”

      That’s the first paragraph, and it does set up some things that come later, but it’s not one of the more intriguing passages in the text (not to me, anyway…)

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  3. Kirsten

     /  October 22, 2012

    I remember almost abandoning Kushiel’s Dart because it took me several tries to parse the first line. If I’m not even sure I want to read a book, I tend to be a bit resistant to a very stylistic voice unless the book gives me a little time to adjust, if that makes sense. Dave is even worse. If he isn’t completely engaged by the middle of the first page he generally won’t keep reading. That’s probably why he prefers books with heavy action. Joe Abecrombie’s “The Blade Itself” springs to mind…

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    • I think I might have to give the nod to Brian on that one; the first line is a bit of a clunker, but the first chapter hooked me. I’m divided on highly stylized voices (maybe obviously ;)) — the ones in the Kushiel books don’t really bother me, but I had a very hard time getting into Moon is a Harsh Mistress because the dialect was throwing me (and I’ve yet to read Clockwork Orange, which is probably the go-to example for dense dialect in a novel).

      It’s interesting — when I’ve shown bits of my book to the “literary” crowd, they all tend to crow about the voice, but I’m not sure whether that’s just because it’s different or because they actually think it’s neat. I do have one member of my writing group who has a hard time with it (she’s expressed her opinion a few times and is now graciously holding her tongue :)) but my general sense is that people seem to like it… guess we’ll see when this thing gets in front of a “real” editor someday 😉

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  4. Thanks for writing this Hannah…I forgot to comment earlier. This is an aspect I think of all the time when writing and reading. 🙂 It’s fun to open up a bunch of books and read the first line.

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