First lines are important. In some ways they’re the most important part of anything you’ll write or read. A great first line should invite the reader in, it should invite them to take a seat and want to hear more.
Not to get too base about it but if you’re the fish then the first line is the hook and the author just needs to reel you in. See, that was a metaphor. I might use a simile later too.
Everyone has their own favourite first lines but here are a few of mine, with my reasons for why they work.
First up is from Stephen King’s IT. There’s no shame at all in saying that King is one of my favourite authors. The man can just write. Sometimes he can be maddening sure (Hello disappointing endings), but sometimes he can use a turn of phrase that gets to the truth of something so sharply that there are lines that I still remember years after reading them.
“The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years — if it ever did end — began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”
The line runs on, but look at the important parts. It’s mysterious. It’s ominous, and the imagery immediately paints a scene. You can’t get to the end of that sentence and not immediately picture that small boat making its way down the gutter.
Some authors just get straight to the point, like Elmore Leonard. If you’ve not read anything by him then you need to go out and do so immediately. This is from his novel Gold Coast (Not actually a favourite of mine, but I find it’s emblematic of his style).
“One day Karen DiCilia put a few observations together and realized her husband Frank was sleeping with a real estate woman in Boca.”
Leonard is one of my favourite authors, in fact I’m choosing lines from the writers I just feel influenced me the most here. And while I have time and again marveled at the elaborate use of prose, one of the things I love most about Leonard is that he stripped all of that away so every line was effective and nothing is wasted. He had a great way of making his text direct yet still sing. And honestly, as far as opening lines go, how could you not want to read the next one?
Cormac McCarthy can be a difficult read. His writing can be obtuse and overwhelming until at some point it just clicks, and then you realise how great it is. More than any other author he’ll send me scrambling for a dictionary or googling a Spanish-to-English translation. So of course as an example I’m going to pick the opening of No Country for Old Men which displays none of the above points:
“I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville”
It’s actually a simple line and certainly one that’s less likely to grab your attention. However, notice the use of “one” and not “a”. It lets the reader know that firstly, the character is in law enforcement and that two, he’s thinking of someone in particular. It’s contemplative and sets the tone for Sheriff Bell’s part in the story, which features a lot of ruminating (And gives the book its title). It’s one of the shortest of McCarthy’s openings, but it’s the one I’m most fond of.
I was going to stop at three main ones. But I’ll stretch to one more so from One Hundred Years of Solitude there’s:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, General Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
Again there’s a lot of set up there. We have a character, we have them in front of a firing squad and the term “many years later” seems to indicate we’ll be learning a lot more about the General. The great trick with these openings is they seem to do it without you even knowing. It’s not until you are able to break down how they work that you appreciate them.
I could really go on. “Call Me Ishmael.” from Moby Dick is another one, as is “I came from Des Moines. Somebody had to.” from Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent. There’s “Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.” from The Divine Comedy, though it does depend on which translation you read. “The Man in Black fled across the Desert, and the Gunslinger followed.” is from Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. The list can, and is, going on. But, what are some of your favourites?