25 April 2010

"First" of all...

Trying to find that elusive outstanding first line, I went in search of others.

There are the classics:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
George Orwell, 1984

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity...
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Midway in our life's journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy - Inferno

There are the ones that slam you into the setting:

The drought had lasted now for ten million years, and the reign of the terrible lizards had ended.
Arthur C Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey

The well-written mood setter:

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
William Gibson, Neuromancer

We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.
Louise Erdrich, Tracks

And the just plain clever:

It was the day my grandmother exploded.
Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road

Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shunyu.
Ha Jin, Waiting

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Stubb, and he almost deserved it.
C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Zach Freeman woke out of a deep sleep to see his bum perched on the ledge of his bedroom window.
Andy Griffiths, The Day My Bum Went Psycho

And my personal favourite:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

So, what makes it memorable? In my opinion, for a first line to be memorable it needs to throw the reader into the setting, tell them something in a way they've never read before, or make them laugh.

The first line is a promise that you're going to take the reader places they've never been before.

How about you? What's your favourite first line of a novel? What do you think it takes to make a great first line?

Thanks for reading.



lesley ann smith said...


Great to see William Gibson in there; what a talent. You are so well read.

I have several favourites. One of the recent ones comes from The Sculptress by Minette Walters.

It was impossible to see her approach without a shudder of distaste.

The opening line is part of the beginning of the promise that the writer makes to the reader. To me, this line says, this story will be creative and well-written with strong mystery/suspense/horror and the story will unfold question upon question so that there will never be a right time to put it down.

And Minette delivered on the promise.


Nicki Flockton said...

I'll admit to be working very hard on my opening scene of my WIP. I want to make it so catching that the reader won't be able to put the book down.

One the most recent books I've read "Devil in a Dark Blue Suit' by Robyn Grady has one of the best opening scenes I've read in a long time. The opening line, "The almighty crack of shattering glass sent Eden Foley's heart shooting like a bullet to her her throat."

Some great first lines Kym. What an awesome amount of research you've done on opening lines.


Lorertta Brabant said...

Great post Kym! If I'm browsing books by an author I haven't read I always read the opening line even before the back cover blurb. Another thing opening lines show is voice. If I love their voice, I buy the book. Opening lines are definitely worth sinking some time into.

Shona said...

I checked out some of my favourite books to see what their first lines were:

In the hall of light, they reminded her of her destiny. Daggerspell by Katherine Kerr

The naked child ran out of the hide covered lean-to towards the rocky beach at the bend in small river. Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M Auel

It was her scars that made her beautiful Ash by Mary Gentle

She had to get off this planet. Trinity by Angela Knight

In every case the first line was about the heroine and asked the question why?
Why was she being reminded of her destiny?
Why was she naked and running to the beach?
Why do the scars make her beautiful?
Why did she have to get off the planet?

It’s that question that keeps the reader reading—they need to find out.

kym said...

Thanks for all your comments. I loved reading your favourite first lines.
I hope you come across some more gems soon.