For Christmas this year one of my relatives bought me a game in the form of a book. On every page, the author gives the first and last paragraph (or hundred words) of a famous book. Then he gave a list of three books with their authors, and we had to guess which book those first and last lines were from.
One of the things that really struck me about these selections was how memorable and tightly written most of those first and last lines were. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” “It was a dark and stormy night.” Even when I hadn’t read the book I often recognized that memorable first line and could identify the author.
Those first lines introduced you at once to the narrator’s voice. You could often identify the genre of the book just from that first line. Some first lines gave you the main character, some the setting, some the plot. “A young man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” The main plotline of a book that begins like that would have to be a romantic one.
I’ve always been interested in the first lines of stories. In fifth and sixth grade when I did fiction writing exercises I wrote first paragraphs and polished them and polished them. It was rare that I ever got around to writing the rest of the story, but wow, did I love those first lines. I can still recite some of them from memory. Under the influence of way too much Jack London, Walt Morey, and Jim Kjelgaard, I wrote,
A nine year old boy lay among cushions and quilts, listening to the night. From the peaks came a long, heartrending cry, echoing like the toll of a brazen bell. As the sound elongated, the maker of the cry pitched the sound into a inhuman wail. It was the call of the hunt, the cry of the pack, the symbol of everything wild and wonderful. It was the cry of the wolf.
I was overly fond of long words, and had little to no vision for how the rest of the story would go. I had no characters. I had no real plot. But I think I got the rhythm of those lines about right. Rhythm is a big part of those memorable first lines.
Why am I writing a blog post about first lines?
When you go to the library to find new authors to read, how do you decide whether to take a book home or not? To check content (because there are some types of stories that I do NOT want to read, and you can’t always tell from the cover or the blurb on the flyleaf) I usually flip through the middle of the book. But to check whether the author is a good writer or not, I read the first paragraph. I can almost always tell from that if the book is going to be well-written or not.
Recently I got a book from the library that was by an author that I knew I liked. Yet when I started reading those first few pages, I was worried. The beginning of the book was sloppily written. I couldn’t hear the author’s voice. To my relief, the book tightened up after a chapter or two—but if I hadn’t already known that I liked this author, I would never have stuck with it that long.
As authors, our first lines are our best chance to hook a new reader. Let’s write good ones! Let’s write powerful ones—that in a century will turn up in lists of best first lines.