Are First Lines That Important?

The following are first lines – from some of my most loved novels:

Call me Ishmael.

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

When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.

All day, the colours had been that of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths.

“Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes.”

Can you recognize any of the above? (Don’t you go and Google them … I’ll put up the answers at the end of the post).

Are first lines that important? I usually read at least half a novel before developing an opinion about it (a possible exception is online fiction, or something that I know is from the slush pile) – and even then I don’t judge something by its first line alone. I read at least two pages of rubbish before I decide to call it rubbish.
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But I’m not spokesperson for the world at large. Nor are novels what we usually read online.

So should you give thought to the first line in your writing?

The answer? It depends on the medium. Novels can get by with absolutely pathetic first lines, though writing overall still has to be good, vigorous and well structured. You wouldn’t have thought that To Kill A Mockingbird – one of the greatest novels ever written – started with an extremely unimpressive first line now, would you?

Once we take it online, however, the first lines of posts, episodes and chapters become absolutely vital. Which of the following would you rather continue reading?

I’m so tired to blog today because a lot of bad things happened to me while I was coming back from school and it was so horrible to be stuck between this woman that stunk like a fish market and a man who looked like he came straight out of The Departed – it nearly made me puke after the heavy meal Kristin made me eat during lunch break as well as the breakfast Mum forced down my throat.

Or:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Alright, so the second example was borrowed off Dickens. He wrote sharp and beautifully, and that first line from A Tale Of Two Cities still sticks with me today. Unfortunately for me, he peppered the rest of the first paragraph with variations of the first line, making me rush through to get to the meat of the story as soon as possible.

The first line in online writing should be concise, to the point, and attractive enough to draw the reader in. You’re not going to get anywhere with:

Hello, my name’s Kevin – but that’s not important.

So what should you aim for in your first line?

1. Sentence level elegance. Your first line doesn’t necessarily have to be short. Properly structured long sentences still work the same wonder if done correctly. For this I refer you to a very enlightening article over at Poynter Online. Read it here.

2. A hint of what lies beyond. Can this be accomplished in a sentence? Not impossible, but you’d need the skills of a good wordsmith to make every letter count. Rather, aim to set the tone for your introduction – and the chapter beyond it – with your first sentence. The second and third are equally important to draw the reader in, though it probably won’t end up in the sacred halls of first (one?) liners that sticks to the mind.

reading.jpg3. Relevancy. Since the first line sets the tone for the introduction as well as the chapter – make sure to revise, revise and revise again. Sometimes the first line is forgotten as the main meat of the article/post/chapter is rewritten – and thus the introduction feels off tangent with what you’re trying to say. The internet is the domain of unforgiving eyes – if your direction, tone or story is not apparent within the first few lines interest would be extremely hard to generate. And thus your reader goes off to check his email, his friend’s blog, or some distraction the internet is all too happy to provide.

4. The Set Up. I don’t like novels to throw me into the chaos of a world I haven’t even begun to understand. I didn’t particularly like the way To Kill A Mockingbird started, but Harper Lee cushioned the abruptness of the first line with a few pages of backstory. Here’s a good example of The Set Up in a first line:

The dark man fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

From Gunslinger, Stephen King.

Ample opportunity for the author to explain – who is the dark man? Who is the gunslinger? Why the desert? Why is one following the other?

5. The Hook. This one doesn’t set up the story, nor does it offer a glimpse of what lies beyond. It just hooks you, pulls you in. Makes you want to know more. One example:

Today my Grandmother exploded …

From Ian Bank’s Crow Road

Does it set up the story? Possibly. Is it elegant? Quite. Does it give a hint of what lies beyond? Absolutely not.

What it does remarkably well is to make you want to read more. I do, and am currently reading up on the book at Amazon. Powerful stuff, this first sentence.

*Note: As promised, here are the books from which the first lines at the introduction of this post were taken:

‘Call Me Ishmael’ – Moby-Dick, and is one of the most famous in American Literature.

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ – Cheeky set up, this one: Pride and Prejudice.

‘When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.’ – An abrupt start to an amazing novel: To Kill A Mockingbird.

‘All day, the colours had been that of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths.’ – Man Booker Prize Winner of 2006 – Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance Of Loss.

‘”Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes.”‘ – The beginning of a masterpiece: Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

It must be noted that this post was inspired by a 9rules note. A big thanks to them for making me read up the first lines of my favourite novels.

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Category: Learning To Write · Writing
  • http://writing.hopcott.net/archives/14 Rob Hopcott

    I think opening lines are really important and have always worked hard on them in my online novels and short stories.

    This is one of my favourites (shameless promotion):

    From Kingfisher Blue by Rob Hopcott:

    She walked into Smokey’s Bar like the breeze that sometimes caresses your face on a gray day. Her fair, nearly blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail with two wisps hanging down by each eye. The bustle of the bar absorbed her into its midst and I lost track of her until she surfaced by the gamblers.

  • http://www.purpledoi.blogspot.com Sam

    “My mother used to threaten to tear me into eight pieces if I knocked over the water bucket, or pretended not to hear her calling me to come home as the dusk thickened and the cicadas’ shrilling increased.”-Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearne

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    To Rob: Good sentence structure, though the first two had perhaps the same rhythm. Didn’t draw me in though – but I’ll read the rest of the book before saying anything more.

    To Sam: Either you ran upstairs to get that opening line, or it was next to you by the computer. ;P

    ‘Suppose that you and I were sitting in a quiet room overlooking a garden, chatting and sipping at our cups of green tea while we talked about something that had happened a long while ago, and I said to you, “That afternoon when I met so-and-so . . . was the very best afternoon of my life, and also the very worst afternoon.”‘ – Memoirs Of A Geisha, Arthur Golden.

  • http://writing.hopcott.net/archives/14 Rob Hopcott

    Thanks for your interesting comment Eli.

    What do you think of this one? (More shameless promotion again, I’m afraid. Aren’t all authors self obsessed?)

    It’s from a series of short stories about an ordinary suburban housewife who seems to get thrust into extraordinary situations where she copes rather well.

    From ‘Burglars’ by Rob Hopcott:

    ‘Alice sat neatly down at the kitchen table of her 3 bedroom semi-detached in the suburbs of London. The burglar slouched at the other end of the vinyl kitchen table.

    How did she know he slouched, she wondered. After all, the grey packing tape that blindfolded her excluded even the slightest chink of light. But she did.’

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Ahh, Rob. I’d say authors are more self critic than self obsessed.

    I like the premise of this one, and it does hook me and make me want to read the rest. But the first sentence of the 2nd paragraph is rather awkward:

    ‘How did she know he slouched, she wondered.’ can be turned into a question:

    ‘How would she know he was slouching?’

    More vibrant, isn’t it? ;P

  • http://writing.hopcott.net/archives/14 Rob Hopcott

    Mmmm, Eli, interesting suggestion. The rest is at

    http://shortstories.hopcott.net/twist_in_the_tail/twist_in_the_tail03/index.html

    It’s on an old HTML site. I’m contemplating converting it to WordPress but there’s so much content it would be a major task and I don’t know whether it would be worth the bother. Using a Content Management system like WordPress tends to give me confidence that the site is technically OK, which I prefer. I’m sure that the old HTML pages have loads of technical problems, inherited over years of change.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Sorry for the late reply, Rob.

    Yeah, old HTML pages can be a pain to work with, especially with the development of new coding techniques over time.

    I’ll go check it out – but moving it to WordPress would be even better – WordPress is pretty well written and is designed to be standards compliant. Go for it! ;P

  • http://www.nickgreenbooks.webeden.co.uk Nick Green

    Anthony Burgess’s EARTHLY POWERS is said to have one of the best openings of all.

    ‘It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.’

    And it is made even better by the lines that come after…

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Hrmm. I’ll check it out on Amazon. Severely lacking in the reads department at the moment – that certainly sounds like a promising first line.

  • http://nomananisland.wordpress.com Gavin Williams

    Call me Ishmael sounds good, but it’s just an introduction. And not to a story, to a person.

    Likewise Pride and Prejudice: it’s an observation, and not necessarily true.

    The mist one is just setting description, and the War and Peace one is as boring as the rest of the first three chapters. I’ve never been able to read it, and I’m known for reading 1000 page manuscripts.

    The Mockingbird line is the best of the bunch because it tells you there is a story: how the arm was broken. Action and questions, and so the novel unfolds.

    But the Gunslinger does it best of all. One of the greatest lines ever, in my opinion. Spooky, sets the tone, the characters giving chase. Amazing.

  • http://arcanadium.monoxide.ws/ Spotty

    Damnit, you’ve made me go and drag out a half dozen books now to check their openers… And I managed to find a curious one:

    Shortly before being knocked unconcious and bound a chair, before being injected with an unknown substance against his will, and before discovering that the world was _deeply_ mysterious in ways he’d neve before imagined, Dylan O’Connor left his motel room and walked across the highway to a brightly lighted fast-food franchise to buy cheeseburgers, French fries, pocket pies with apple filling and a vanilla milkshake.

    Phew! Not just an opening sentence, a whole opening paragraph. I won’t comment on the sentence length, but we have a check on the other four items… Does it work though? Well, I’ll leave that to you to decide.

    The book is “By the Light of the Moon” by Dean Koontz, for the record.

  • P

    This might be a late post, and I’m new here, but I figured I’d throw my two cents in…

    Good opening lines, which may or may not be one line, must do one thing, and do it quickly: explicitly or implicitly signal conflict.

    In conflict with other opinions on this tread, the above opening lines quoted in the article do that well. Some are just more implicit than others. Some people would call the implicit tasteful, and the explicit vulgar; others call the implicit boring and the explicit exciting. That’s a matter of taste, subjectivity, which should be put aside when studying writing techniques. Some people can see the massive amount of conflict implied in “Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes.” and others need to be beaten over the head with “The dark man fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” In any case, in each example, the conflict is there.

    I think that’s the difference between “pro” writing and “amateur” writing. Amateurs rarely pack in enough conflict, either implicit or explicit, in their opening lines.

    No matter how much imagery and description is attached to a conflict-poor opening line, it will never interest a large section of readers. For example: “Darcy walked into the living room. Her hair, pulled into a ponytail, flowed like a golden shower down the middle of her back. Fishnet stockings torn at the knees revealed raspberry red scrapes.” You could keep going with the description, but, in this reader’s opinion, there’s very little of interest in the opening of that story. Contrast the above with this: “When the dinner guests at the Moulon Club acted as if Gordon Emerson were a plague, he knew everyone in his social circle, everyone in his world, knew what he had done — and would never forget.”

    Although it could use some sprucing up, I think the second opening carries more interest than the first. The first carries no conflict at all; but the second pits a man against his peers and social circles.

    Some more opening lines off the top of my head where I focus on setting up a conflict ASAP…

    “It was my sixth birthday when my father started visiting my bed at night.”

    “It was Alice Shay Eddings called me a whore, and I wasn’t about to let her get away with it; I ain’t that type a girl.”

    “It couldn’t be said of Don McClurry that he was an elegant man; rather he was clumsy, brusque, and had the manners of a boy raised by wolves; that was the main reason he would never fit into our world.”

    “Davao City was a tropical paradise, but so utterly different from where I came from (a small village in Northern Canada, if you must know), I feared I would never survive there.”

    “Dumbass Damsel in Distress turned into the alley, the man in a dark trench coat right behind her.”

    “Dingbat Doris reached into the shark’s mouth, and after it clamped down on her arm and dragged her off of the boat and under thirty feet of clear blue water, she thought to herself: ‘how am I gonna get out of this?’ ”

    I’m not saying any of these opening lines competes with the classics quoted above, but I think they do a good job of setting up conflict. And, as every writer knows, conflict attracts readers.

    Just my two cents. Now, I’ll accept my flagellation.

    P

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Flagellation? No way, P, that’s good stuff. My favourite of the above is probably this one:

    “Dingbat Doris reached into the shark’s mouth, and after it clamped down on her arm and dragged her off of the boat and under thirty feet of clear blue water, she thought to herself: ‘how am I gonna get out of this?’ ”

    That, P, is just darned cute.

    On a more serious note, I’ve never thought of opening lines like that. Conflict, hrmm?

  • sarah

    when I was reading this I was thinking of one of my favourite opening lines, which appeared the SECOND after I thought about it. It is, of course, the opening line from “The Gunslinger”.
    Some of my other favourites are
    “The platform snaps open beneath the man’s brown shoes, and in an instant those shoes disappear as his neck pops against the noose, his feet swinging and clapping together. The crowd about August cheers — or perhaps they only give murmurs of approval; the world awaiting death is oft more quiet than that of life.” which would be from my novel Where The Sun Never Dies

  • Kitty

    It’s true that writers are always questing for the immortal first line. Of course, it would be so much easier if we could just force those pesky readers into all thinking alike :P Over the years I’ve read numerous articles on writing that all-important opening line, and they usually give the impression of good solid advice. What usually trips me up though, is when I get to the “examples” section. If five examples of smashing and memorable openers are given, I’m lucky if *one* piques my interest.

    As was the case here. The To Kill a Mockingbird quote was the only one, with the possible exception of Pride and Prejudice, that would grab my interest in any way if I were browsing.

    I have to say that the Booker Prize winner’s opening would send me fleeing, as would any story that opened with overly flowery description. When I start skimming before the first sentence is over, I don’t see that as a good sign, ha ha.

    This is not to impugn anyone’s taste, or say that we should throw up our hands in despair and cease trying. But best to keep in mind that one person’s trash is another’s treasure. I’ve been guilty of squandering my time and effort on crafting that perfect opening, to the detriment of the rest of the chapter/book.

  • Lauren

    It’s just an opinion, but, I kind of preferred your long-winded sentence full of run-ons more than Dickens’. Don’t get me wrong. Dicken’s was a great author but he had his own particular style of writing. Your one about the fish market sounds more genuine and gives off character and personality. I get your point, though. First liners should make the reader want to keep reading your story/novel.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Wait. You preferred my sentence to Dickens?! *stunned look* Man I’m definitely not being paid enough … ;-)

  • Jp

    Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island- “Squire Trelawney, Doctor Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17- and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow Inn, and the brown old seaman, with the sabercut, first took up his lodging under our roof.” A good first sentence I think (more like a good first para.) just thought I should post one since this topic helped me out a lot with my 9th grade Honors Lit essay :)

  • Sarah

    it was a bright cold day in april and the clocks were striking thirteen.

    ^^1984 :)
    the brilliant thing about this opening is its ordinariness. You’ve almost moved on to the second line when it hits you… ‘hold on a minute, striking THIRTEEN?’

  • Sarah

    in response to your comment on ‘are first lines that important?’
    that line strikes me as try-hard, but then when you read it turns out that the narrator is an author, and thats his idea of a joke. An excellent twist :)

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