“A good first line should be as good as your favourite film quote. Something that even when taken out of context has power – the power to make someone laugh or think or gasp or grimace. The best opening lines, when read in the bookstore, can make or break the sale of a book arguably even more than its blurb.” Christopher Jackson in his blog post How to Write a Killer Opening.
Jackson goes on to say you’ll probably find that the best ones…
- Are short and snappy
- Immediately set the tone of the story
- Quickly raise questions that you want answered
- Hit you right between the eyes, often by being surprising or shocking
Not all writers feel the need to be interesting on the first page. Have you ever opened a book to check it out and found a first sentence like this?
“Millions upon millions of years ago, when the continents were already formed and the principal features of the earth had been decided, there existed, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others… (more of the same)… a mighty ocean, resting uneasily to the east of the largest continent, a restless ever-changing, gigantic body of water that would later be described as Pacific.”
Would you keep reading? That was James A. Michener’s opening to his novel Hawaii. Without his name on the cover, I don’t think I would have continued.
In her blog about first lines, Barbara Scott (a former Executive Acquisitions Editor for Abingdon Press fiction) offers the equally boring opening to Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout.
“For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild raspberries show their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorites, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging from the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold.”
Scott says she fell asleep that night after she finished reading the first paragraph.
The editors of American Book Review compiled a list of the 100 Best First Lines of Novels. It contains the oddball ones, like:
30. The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)
…the poignant, like:
52. We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. —Louise Erdrich, Tracks (1988)
…and the startling ones, like:
8. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
I have some favorite first lines from books on my YA Keeper shelf. If you’d like, I’ll share.
“I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged.
Now, if you please.” –Chime, by Franny Billingsley
“I bear a deep red stain that runs from my left shoulder down to my right hip, a trail left by the herbwitch’s poison that my mother used to try to expel me from her womb. That I survived, according to the herbwitch, is no miracle but a sign I have been sired by the god of death himself.” – Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers
“In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind.” –Graceling, by Kristin Cashore
“I wake up barefoot, standing on cold slate tiles. Looking dizzily down. I suck in a breath of icy air.
Above me are stars. Below me, the bronze statue of Colonel Wallingford makes me realize I’m seeing the quad from the peak of Smythe Hall, my dorm.” – White Cat, by Holly Black
“Death lived up to Jacob’s expectations.” – The Soulkeepers, by G. P. Ching
““You have to stop it, Kylie. You have to. Or this will happen to someone you love.”” –Awake at Dawn (Shadow Falls), by C. C. Hunter
“If I had to do it all over again, I would not have chosen this life. Then again, I’m not sure I ever had a choice.” –The False Prince, by Jennifer A. Nielsen
“My mother thinks I’m dead. Obviously I’m not dead, but it’s safer for her to think so.” – Legend, by Marie Lu
Fantastic, aren’t they? I wish I’d written them.
What are your favorite first lines?