First Lines

I have a story to tell and I am caught in a kind of continuous loop that has the whole thing trapped in my rearview mirror–just sitting there, waiting for the highway to open up. And I don’t feel like I can move forward until I get that first line right.

The first line is the writer’s North Star, guiding the storyline that will follow. For the first line to do its job well, it needs to create the right scenery and lighting for the characters to step onto the stage. It has a lot to do with mood.

First lines can be emotional, or curious, or just plain odd. Enough so that we feel compelled to read on. Some writers use the first line to introduce a story by expressing an obvious truth. Others use the first line to create a mystery. Many writers use the first line to describe a paradox. And while these seem to be popular approaches, there is really no practical limit to the different ways a story can begin.

Great first lines have the ability to evoke a complete story in your head, even before you have a chance to read the next sentence. I think that’s because we humans are natural storytellers. Whether we are relating our own experience through a series of interior thoughts and actions, or listening to someone else’s imaginings, we want to be entertained, surprised, and inspired by our stories. Because stories are one of the primary ways we connect with one another to understand our world.

“As a reader, we join the writer by bringing our own curiosity, imagination, and desires to the words on the page. Writers know this. That’s why they care so much about the first line. Because all it takes is a stunning first line and we are hooked.”

So I decided to turn my mental traffic jam into a learning exercise by studying how great writers start their books. Searching for clues, I started going down a list of great books and recording their first lines.

Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened. — The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. — Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

I recall with utter clarity the first great shock of my life.  — Trinity, by Leon Uris

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…— A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

Snowman wakes before dawn. — Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

It was the pivotal teaching of Pluthero Quexos, the most celebrated dramatist of the Second Dominion, that in any fiction, no matter how ambitious its scope or profound its theme, there was ever only room for three players. — Imajica, by Clive Barker

124 was spiteful. — Beloved, by Toni Morrison

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. — A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving

In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. — The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

It was love at first sight. — Catch 22, by Joseph Heller

I often dream about the Dolphin Hotel. — Dance, Dance, Dance, by Haruki Murakami

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. — The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

A squat grey building of only thirty-four storeys. — Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard. — Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Call me Ishmael. — Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. — Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney

Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested. — The Trial, by Franz Kafka

While I was thinking about all of this, I had the idea that it would be a fun writing exercise to use one of these first lines to start a new story that goes its own way.

Meanwhile, I need to stop procrastinating and come up with the first line for my story.