What makes a good first line?

What makes a good first line?

How important are a book’s first lines?

Watch what book buyers do when they pull books out at Barnes and Noble. They most often glance at the front cover, read the blurb on the back or inside flap, and then skim the first page. In Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, a character says she judges a book not by its first lines by its single first line, and the central character then quotes the first line of A Wrinkle in Time, which is, as many of you know, “It was a dark and stormy night.” I don’t believe every book needs a single killer first line. However, it’s worth a writer’s time to edit a first line and the whole first paragraph.

Here are some first lines from books pulled randomly off my shelves.

“They took me in my nightgown.” (From Ruta Sepetys’s Between Shades of Gray)

Now that is a memorable first line, and I admit it’s one of the reasons I bought the book. Who took her? Where? This doesn’t sound good. As it happens, this is a YA story about the Soviets deporting Lithuanians to Siberia during World War II.

(Just as an aside about this book, it came out in March 2011, two months before Fifty Shades of Gray was published. I’ve heard Sepetys talk about how she occasionally goes to give a reading and finds people in attendance expecting a very different kind of book.)

While I like this first line, I think it verges on trying too hard. It might feel like the writer jumping up and down saying, “Look! Read this.” I think the line escapes that because the rest of the book is so strong, so the line comes to feel appropriate.

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.” (From Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games)

That’s a less startling line than Sepetys’s, but for most readers, it accomplishes a first line’s basic job, which is making the reader want to read the second one. We want to know who’s missing from that chilly bed. Here’s the rest of the book’s first paragraph: “My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.”

If we had any illusions that mention of a bed means the book is about romance and sex, that paragraph destroys them. It sets up the whole book in a remarkably concise way. The Hunger Games is about the reaping and the danger and combat that entails, but it’s centrally about love, and especially about Katniss’s love for her sister.

“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them.” (From George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones)

The woods are growing dark? Gared is afraid? That sounds dangerous. Let’s see where we’re going. There’s only one more line in that paragraph: “The wildlings are dead.” All right, I’m convinced. The characters should get out of there. Also, they should tell me what a wildling is.

What do good first lines do?

Looking at these lines, it seems to me they all do a couple of things. First, they raise a question the reader wants to answer. Second, they suggest that trouble is afoot. We aren’t languishing in a lush landscape description here. We’re seeing characters who are already acting in a problematic situation.

Do you notice first lines? I never used to. I think I assumed they were always some sort of authorial throat clearing, like “The sun was setting over the fields.” I was wrong.

Do you have first lines or paragraphs you remember? How much do they matter to you?

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11 thoughts on “What makes a good first line?

  1. The one that struck me most, from the last few months, is from Killshot by Elmore Leonard:

    “The Blackbird told himself he was drinking too much because he lived in this hotel and the Silver Dollar was close by, right downstairs.”

    It sets the tone for the street musicality of the prose, without overwhelming you, and definitely makes me want to read the next one. That whole first paragraph is great, actually. If I may:

    “Try to walk out the door past it. Try to come along Spadina Avenue, see that goddamn Silver Dollar sign, hundreds of light bulbs in your face, and not be drawn in there. Have a few drinks before coming up to this room with a ceiling that looked like a road map, all the cracks in it. Or it was the people in the Silver Dollar talking about the Blue Jays all the time that made him drink too much. He didn’t give a shit about the Blue Jays. He believed it was time to get away from here, leave Toronto and the Waverley Hotel for good and he wouldn’t drink so much and be sick in the morning. Follow one of those cracks in the ceiling.”

    But then, Elmore always did have a way with words.

  2. This is the current first line from my novel-in-progress:
    “Alone in the darkness, Caladan Marks waited to die.”
    I’m hoping it at least does what you suggest – push the reader to the next line.

  3. My favorite opening line is from Gibson’s _Neuromancer_. “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

    At the time that was static. Change meaning a bit since then

  4. Since you asked. 🙂
    Most memorable first line, alas: John Varley, “Steel Beach” (sci-fi, 1993): “‘In five years, the penis will be obsolete’ said the salesman.”
    I don’t remember much of the rest of the book.
    Of more recent reads:
    “Orlando”, Virginia Woolf: “He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it – was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. It was the colour of an old football, and more or less the shape of one, save for the sunken cheeks and a strand or two of coarse, dry hair.”

    “The Man in Grey”, Michael Swanwick, first story in a 2016 collection short story collection called “Not So Much, Said The Cat” (amazingly eclectic mix, sci-fi, fantasy, mainstream):
    “There’s a rustling in the wings. Let the story begin.”
    “I was standing outside watching when sixteen-year-old Martha Geissler, pregnant, loveless and unwed, stepped into the path of a Canadian National freight train traveling at the rate of forty-five miles per hour.”
    From the same collection, “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled”, first paragraph really grabbed me:
    “Imagine a cross between Byzantium and a termite mound. Imagine a jeweled mountain, slender as an icicle, rising out of the steam jungles and disappearing into the dazzling pearl-grey skies of Gehenna. Imagine that Gaudi—he of the Sagrada Familia and other biomorphic architectural whimsies—had been commissioned by a nightmare race of giant black millipedes to recreate Barcelona at the height of its glory, along with touches of the Forbidden City in the eighteenth century and Tokyo in the twenty-second, all within a single miles-high structure. Hold every bit of that in your mind at once, multiply by a thousand, and you’ve got only the faintest ghost of a notion of the splendor that was Babel.
    Now imagine being inside Babel when it fell.
    Hello. I’m Rosamund. I’m dead.”
    (That last story is free online at http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/swanwick_05_13_reprint )

    1. Interesting choices!

      I think first lines (and paragraphs) are especially important in short stories because you have to get things off the ground immediately. I find short stories hard to write, but when I do, I know I spend more time thinking about a striking first line.

      Also as with anything, the writer better be ready to deliver on the promise that strong opening delivers.

  5. Late to the party as usual, but here’s two of them that I think hit the mark:

    1. “Drugged-up like on shore leave, and naked as the day he was born, Earl Jack Hadley stumbled out of the catwalks, staggered across the flight deck, and was sliced into cutlets by Clem Button’s port propeller.” From my nautical murder mystery tentatively titled ‘A Hole in the Bottom of the Sea’

    2. “Sylvie Delacourt made five phone calls the February night she was killed.” From a pile of papers that will eventually sort themselves out into a book titled ‘Nightfall in Neuilly’

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