What’s in a great first line?

Recently I made a bet with a friend over the outcome of Euro 2012 (why? I don’t know thing about soccer, or football, if you prefer). Shockingly, I lost, and as payment, I’m required to read a book of his choosing. Assignment: Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. I’ve never read a graphic novel before (I know, I know) and so quickly scanned the first page to see what I’m in for.

This is what I found:

“Rorschach’s Journal. October 12 TH, 1985.: Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.”

My reaction: wow! Though I’m mid-way through two other books, I wanted to toss them aside and keep reading. And that got me thinking about first lines, whether we need to have a great one, and what makes them great. I started plucking other books from my shelf to see if they had similarly fantastic opening lines. Most didn’t. They weren’t bad, but definitely didn’t grab me in the same way this one did. But some stood out, and I’ve reproduced those below, along with my immediate reactions to them and followed by a discussion of what makes them great.

(I restricted myself to the first sentence from chapter one, not the prologue, if there was one.)

First lines from books on my shelf:

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson

Reaction: In medias res, funny, modern, gritty/edgy.

“The primroses were over.” Watership Down, Richard Adams

Reaction: Foreshadowing bad things to come, cycle of life, nature, countryside, old-fashioned.

“My suffering left me sad and gloomy.” Life of Pi, Yann Martel

Reaction: What suffering? Sympathy for character.

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

Reaction: Literary, funny, profound, true.

“The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend.” The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan

Reaction: High fantasy-feel, epic, broad focus.

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger

Reaction: Distinct voice, second person, curiosity about character, close focus (inside character’s head), run-on sentence.

“’To be born again,’ sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, ‘first you have to die…’” The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie

Reaction: Dialogue directed at me, philosophical, religious, magic realism, fable.

“I believe what separates humanity from everything else in this world – spaghetti, binder paper, deep-sea creatures, edelweiss and Mount McKinley – is that humanity alone has the capacity at any given moment to commit all possible sins.” Hey Nostradamus, Douglas Coupland

Reaction: Quirky, drawing relationships between seemingly diverse items, philosophical, humorous, modern.

“They’re all dead now.” Fall on Your Knees, Ann-Marie MacDonald

“The birds saw the murder.” The Way the Crow Flies (Prologue), Ann-Marie MacDonald

“The sun came out after the war and our world went Technicolor.” The Way the Crow Flies, Ann-Marie MacDonald

Reaction: Curiosity provoking, dark, serious, weighty, cutting to the heart of things.

So what do these first lines have in common that makes them great?

First, they all capture the voice and style in which the story is told. You can tell instantly whether you’re about to read an epic fantasy, a literary classic, a charming tale, or a gritty, modern story. They also all touch on the major theme or concern of the story—whether it’s a murder, a character study, a philosophical examination of religion, or a series of drug-induced shenanigans, it’s right there in the first sentence.

And maybe that’s it: these first lines are something like elevator pitches. They accomplish a lot in a short amount of space; they’re pithy. These books have something to say, plots specific enough to be hinted at in a single sentence, and are written in a consistently strong voice, or style. In a way, it’s probably the greatness of these books that made it easy(er) for the authors to craft excellent first sentences.

So, must our novels have great first lines? While I think it’s necessary to have a great, or at least very good, first couple chapters, it probably isn’t as vital that our first lines go down in history as some of the greats. Most people will keep reading even if the first line is a bit bland, giving the author at least a chapter or two to win them over. Personally I worry my novels-in-progress don’t have strong enough central themes to birth brilliant first sentences, but that’s a topic for another post.

But whether it’s necessary or not, don’t we all want to ­­hit our readers smack between the eyes with something like, “This city is afraid of me”?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. What are your favorite opening lines and why? What makes an opening line special?

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  • I know it’s a first paragraph, but one of my favorite firsts is from OLD MAN’S WAR, by John Scalzi: “I did two things on my 75th birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”

    The first part is what you expect 75-year-old to do–the 2nd, not so much! That sense of surprise just makes you keep reading.

  • John Dewey Nakamura Remy

    I love studying great first lines! Thanks for this post.

    Here are my two favorite opening lines:

    “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” (Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov)

    “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.” (One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

  • I’m a big fan of the opening of the prologue from The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester:

    This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying…but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice…but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks…but nobody loved it.

    And the first line of the novel proper is also worthy of
    calling out:

    He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead.

  • Matt Bone

    “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” – Camus, The Outsider

  • “If I had cared to live, I would have died”

    –Silverlock, John Myers Myers.

  • Calvin

    “The sky was the color of a television, tuned to a dead channel”
    from Neuromancer by William Gibson

    “The assassin came in and ordered waffles.”
    Unknown book and author. I read this as a teenager and this line never left my head. I have not seen the book since. Anyone remember that first line?

    • cljohnston108

      Very close, but it’s actually…
      “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

  • Erika Holt

    Those are some great first lines/paragraphs–thanks for chiming in!

  • Tucker

    The other awesome thing about Watership Down is that the last line ends with “…where the primroses were still in bloom.”

    My favorite? “The author assures the reader that he will not have to die if he reads this book, as did the user of the 1691 edition, when The Khazar Dictionary still had its first scribe.” –Milorad Pavic, Dictionary of the Khazars

    • Erika Holt

      That *is* awesome! Thanks for pointing that out! And for sharing that first line. 🙂