First Lines, Part One: The Concept

Sometimes a line of literature sticks with you for years. You’ll be going about your life, and a thought will pop into your head that reminds you of a time in your past, and on the heels of that memory a quote that impacted you pops back into the forefront of your mind: one line that so perfectly casts light on the world and humanity and yourself.

And when one such line is the very first sentence of a book, it sets the ground for the entire book to stick with a reader.

Here are a few of our favorite first sentences, and probably some of yours, too:

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”
—Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…”
—Allen Ginsberg, “Howl”

“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

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

“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

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
—C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.”
—James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
—Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

And finally, from [our sister imprint] Shannon & Elm’s own novel:

“Masturbation turned me into a New Yorker.”
—Neal Starkman, Dervishes

So…how does one create a first line that sticks?

  1. The weather is not an acceptable opener. Boycott anything to do with the setting, unless the setting is really important to the story, and the opener is really damn good.
  2. Use small words and short fragments. The first line is the ultimate hook; you have milliseconds to draw the reader in.
  3. It should be short. At least the memorable part of it—see Joyce and the obscenely verbose Dickens above. The sentence can ramble on afterwards, but that first physical line on the page should be all it takes to make the top of your reader’s head come off. (We stole that from Emily Dickinson.) After all, how many people can quote the Dickens line past “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”?
  4. Something about it should be mildly confusing. Something that will make the reader seek an answer in the second line and the rest of the novel. (See the Márquez quote above.)
  5. It should give voice to a universal truth, but not a cliché. Give that truth a personal twist.

A first line without these components can be perfectly acceptable. But will it be remarkable?

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