Q : Why is the first line so important?
A : Agents and acquiring editors will quit reading if your opening sentence doesn’t zing. Any writer seeking publication or the devoted attention of a reader browsing in a bookstore needs to craft that first sentence, revising, revising, revising, until it just hums.
One way to prepare for this is to read your own favorite first lines. Here are a couple of mine, followed by 6 suggestions for what makes a good first sentence.
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson) Talk about ominous, edgy, hallucinogenic – this one, which first appeared in 1971, has become the rallying cry of several subsequent generations of young men in search of an identity. The prince of Gonzo was proud of this sentence, one of the few he wrote quickly and easily.
“Call me Ishmael.“ (Moby Dick by Herman Melville) Another muscular attention riveter, since 1851. The power is in the use of the second person, direct address: “Yo! Reader! Call me by my name. And it’s Ishmael! Not Ahab! I’m telling this story…”
What makes a good first line? 6 tips
Here are a few ideas:
1. Get to the point
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.
Don’t hope that readers will stay with you while you set the scene or deliver an “information dump” prior to getting started on the real stuff. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” (Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, 1955) is a great example of skipping right to the essential passion, the bottom line.
2. Lead to something
The job of the first sentence is to compel you to read the next one. Look at this opener: “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, 1925) “OK,” one responds. What was it? What’s your story?
3. Shock and awe
They shoot the white girl first.
Stop us dead in our tracks with fear, distress, dismay. Like “They shoot the white girl first.” (Paradise by Toni Morrison, 1998) Wow. What an awful image. What’s going on? What caused this horrible thing to happen?
4. Give us an attitude
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
This can be obvious, like “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.” (Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, 1951)
Or it can be more subtle, as in “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” (Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, 1925) There’s just a trace of defiance and opposition to expectations, but oh so powerful.
5. Be controversial
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Readers are still debating whether “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, 1877, translated by Constance Garnett) is totally brilliant or completely wrong, just the opposite, and deliberately so, once you read the book itself. Perhaps Tolstoy really meant unhappy families are all alike and every happy family is happy in its own way.
6. Don’t always avoid the cliché
Sometimes they work ironically. Many people say “It was a dark and stormy night…” (Paul Clifford by Victorian novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, 1830) is a joke, but I’ve always felt pulled in to read more. The problem may have been that these were actually only the first few words of a much longer sentence which inspired the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest to celebrate the worst examples of extravagantly overwritten opening lines.
The original sentence was “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
Phew. Now that sentence needs an editor.
But consider how long the basic image has lasted, with some help from Snoopy.
What are some of your favorite first sentences?