First Lines Are Important

first lines

Writing is a complicated business, beset on all sides by pending disaster.  Those who choose to tell stories to strangers must begin at the beginning — and that’s where the trouble starts.  Tons of good tales die on the first line because they never get one.  Writing the first line of any story is hard.  Authors have a tiny window to convince potential readers that the approaching landscape is worth their time and trouble.  Unfortunately, most authors get it wrong.  For example, one of the most famous first lines in literature, “Call me Ishmael” is actually a total disaster.  It does nothing to pull the reader into the story.  In fact, it’s a little misleading.  The only important thing Ishmael does in Moby Dick is – uh – survive.  Melville would have done a better job with, “Call him Ahab!”  But seriously, a first line should leave the reader with a nagging feeling of what-the-hell-is-going-on-here? — and a strong temptation to find out.  Here are a few first lines that do exactly that.

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

George Orwell – 1984

My mother died today.  Or maybe it was yesterday; I can’t be sure.

Albert Camus – The Stranger

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

Neil Gaiman – The Graveyard Book

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.  My sin, my soul.

Vladimir Nabokov – Lolita

The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.

Stephen King – The Gunslinger

All children, except one, grow up.

J.M. Barrie – Peter Pan

It was a pleasure to burn.

Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451

Marley was dead, to begin with.

Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol

All this happened, more or less.

Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse-Five

This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.

William Goldman – The Princess Bride

The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.

Ian Fleming – Casino Royale

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

J.R.R. Tolkien – The Hobbit

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

Iain Banks – The Crow Road

“Where’s Papa going with the ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

E.B. White – Charlotte’s Web

Elmer Gantry was drunk.

Sinclair Lewis – Elmer Gantry

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

Dodie Smith – I Capture the Castle

I’m pretty much fucked.

Andy Weir – The Martian

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.

Hunter S. Thompson – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

And, of course, the best first line ever written:

Once upon a time. . .


*Illustration from The Far Side

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