One Thousand Words on First Lines

I place great importance on a book’s first line.

That’s not to say that I’ll stop reading a book if I don’t like the first line. But I might consider stopping. I want to be hooked immediately.

I’ve often wished I’d started a journal of the first lines of all the books I’ve read. I would be interesting to read back over them. Maybe they would create a book on their own.

As I’ve been thinking about (and even writing a little bit) of my would-be novel, I’ve been considering my first line carefully. What makes a first line great? What does a first line need to do? Is it about action or introducing the character the reader is about to spend time with?

This post is an exploration of the first lines of some of my favorite books. I know technically that means not all of tonight’s one thousand words are mine, but I think the research will be valuable.

“The angel was cleaning out his closets when the call came.” (Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore.)

Lamb is my all time favorite book. In fact, until I read it I didn’t even have a favorite book. I’d say, “I like all books. I can’t pick just one.” Then I read Lamb.

This line doesn’t appear to be much at first glance, but if you think about it, it’s actually quite brilliant. It make makes the reader say “An angel cleaning out a closet? What the hell?” You keep reading because the image of a heavenly being doing a mundane task like closet cleaning is unexpected.

Insight #1. First lines introduce something unexpected.

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” (Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov)

I’m going to admit something embarrassing here. I first read Lolita because of the line in my favorite Police song, Don’t Stand So Close To Me. “He starts to shake and cough. Just like the old man in that book by Nabokov.” Thanks, Sting!

But since that first time, I’ve read the book repeatedly and loved it more each time. (I tend to like my books like I like my musicals: dark. Lamb is the exception.)

The great thing about this first line is the raw passion. Even if you are completely oblivious and have no idea that Humbert Humbert falls in love with Lolita when she is still a child, you have to know what kind of person inspires such words of ardent desire and love.

Insight #2. First lines are passionate.

“On the afternoon of October 12, 1990, my twin brother Thomas entered the Three Rivers, Connecticut Public Library, retreated to one of the rear study carrels, and prayed to God the sacrifice he was about to commit would be deemed acceptable.” (I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb.)

I haven’t read this book in years, but that first sentence made me want to re-read the book. Right now. I actually just read a couple of pages before tearing myself away to write.

This line could practically stand on its own as a very short story, and not only because it’s a long sentence. Wally Lamb creates a mystery immediately. You have to keep reading to find out what sacrifice Thomas is about to commit.

Insight #3. First lines create a mystery.

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” (There Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.)

I first read this book in college. In fact, my copy is still marked up with the notes I took while reading in order to have something intelligent to say in class. But if you flip through, the notes become more infrequent as I became engaged in the book. They are gone all together by chapter three. I was too busy reading to make notes.

Zora Neale Hurston’s first line is different from the rest I’ve written about tonight. It’s not mysterious or passionate or unexpected. It doesn’t require the reader to keep reading in order to answer a question. But you want to keep reading because it’s apparent the book has something important to say. And it sounds like poetry.

Insight #4. First lines are beautiful and profound.

“The beginning is simple to mark.” (Enduring Love by Ian McEwan)

I adore Ian McEwan’s writing. It’s so spare and clean, almost gutted.

Initially I thought this sentence wasn’t going to offer me any greater understanding of first lines. It doesn’t really say much by itself. But then I realized that it sets the tone for the whole book. It lets the reader know exactly how the rest of the book is going to sound and feel.

Insight #5. First lines establish the writer’s style.

“My brother Vernon went on ahead.” (Kings of the Earth by Jon Clinch)

This is a recent addition to my favorites list. I read it earlier this year and at first I didn’t think I was going to like it. I kept saying, “It’s so bleak!”

But I quickly became involved in the characters. They are so powerful and you feel like they are talking just to you. The story is great too, but it was the characters that kept me engrossed. And the first line establishes the voice of one of those characters very clearly.

Insight #6. First lines set a character’s voice.

“Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.” (The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.)

For some strange reason, I like this book even though the bull fighting is violent and bloody and I don’t relate to any of the characters.

Plus, this first line doesn’t pull me in or intrigue me. It feels like exposition. It tells us something about Robert Cohn, but who really cares? If I hadn’t been required to read it, I might not have continued. But I did and the rest is the book makes you forget all about a rather boring first line.

Insight #7. First lines have to be followed by a really good book.


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