Part Two: Writing Great First Lines

The first line to a novel is undoubtedly the most important. Past the title, it is (usually) the first a reader sees of an author’s writing. The first full sentence, the first complete thought to introduce both the author and whatever strong, often recurring trope the author has chosen to draw attention to. The first line is used to hook the reader and develop an insatiable intrigue so that putting the book down is difficult to do, if not downright impossible.

But what makes a good first line? How does one go about crafting a great opener for the next bestseller? Taking lists of the greatest first lines (all subjective) from the American Book Review, The Telegraph, and The Guardian, among others, here are some recurring traits:

Introduce the Main Character or the Narrator

Probably the most straightforward technique, the aforementioned character needs to be interesting and unique enough to beg such a blunt introduction. “Call me Ishmael” (Moby Dick) says nothing about Ishmael, except that he is casual and straightforward, while “I am an invisible man” tells us very plainly about the condition of the eponymous character. The Old Man and the Sea introduces the protagonist solely as an old man in a skiff on the Gulf Stream who hasn’t caught a fish in eighty-four days. Mark Twain has Huckleberry Finn reference an entire other work (also by Twain) as an introduction to the narrator, and J.D. Salinger sardonically has Holden Caulfied begin with “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born… and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

Introduce the Setting

This often goes hand in hand with introducing the characters, but not always and not explicitly. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” writes J.R.R. Tolkien very openly about the abodes in Hobbiton. “Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell… it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” The introduction to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities makes nearly every first line list, and while lengthy, does a comprehensive job (if limited) of introducing the tone of the book and the mood of the time period. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy pinpoints Earth within the “backwaters” of the Milky Way, and The Bell Jar begins by describing “a queer sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs.”

Write About Relevant Universal Generalizations

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” writes Leo Tolstoy at the start of Anna Karenina. Pride and Prejudice, a novel about marital affairs, begins by claiming “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” This is Jane Austen’s best known work, which is commonly accepted as well introduced. For first lines such as this, however, what needs to follow in the rest of the narrative is evidence to support or disprove these “universal truths” as, well, true.

Mention Something Odd or Out of the Ordinary

This creates intrigue, and the reader keeps reading solely to answer the question of “How?” or “Why?” Fahrenheit 451 begins with “It was a pleasure to burn.” What is burning, and why is it so pleasurable? “All children, except one, grow up,” introduces Peter Pan, George Orwell mentions the clocks were striking thirteen in his first line for 1984, and the reader immediately questions why Mr. and Mrs. Dursley so adamantly claim they are “perfectly normal” in J.K. Rowling’s debut children’s novel.

Of course, these good first lines are not limited to these particular parameters, and in fact many of them embody more than one—so use discretion and open your novel with a line deserving of the rest of the narrative.

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