That all important first line

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

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.

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

That all important first line of a novel…the one I agonize over as a writer. The one that, when I pick up a book, I read to assess (along with the rest of the first page) whether I’m going to buy it or not. 

But how much does it really count?

In my current novel, I spent a long time deliberating over the first line – not because it was complicated or particularly awe-inspiring but because it needed to immediately draw the reader in and establish that things had already gone awry for one of the main protagonists. The first line is literally the hook to grab your reader and pull him/her in – but really, how much time should you spend on getting it right?

In my opinion, an ideal  first line should immediately establish one of the following:

  • Mood
  • Theme
  • Dissonance
  • Threat
  • Character
  • World 

It should neatly encapsulate the theme of the story to come and lead seamlessly into the first page that, as we have so often blogged about, is integral to creating a compelling (and ultimately saleable) novel.

And this the entry point can be unforgettable. I mean who can ignore the simplistic beauty of the opening to George Orwell’s 1984: It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Immediately we get a sense of mood, a sense of foreboding, and a vision of a world quite different to our own – and all in one line. Or take Ray Bradbury’s first line of Fahrenheit 451: It was a pleasure to burn. and my personal favorite (maybe because this is so often true…) I have never begun a novel with more misgiving (W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge). 

But sometimes I wonder, is it worth all the agony? Do you think the first line of a book is really that important? Apart from the classics, what memorable first lines have you read recently?

13 thoughts on “That all important first line

  1. I would say that a first line is important… but not as important as having a brilliant story to follow it. Because while most readers will probably forgive an average first line if it’s followed with a story that sticks in your mind long after you’ve read THE END, they may not be as forgiving of a poor novel no matter how good the opening line is.

    The first line is also one of the biggest traps that a first time author can fall into (as I well know). You spend so much time obsessing over getting that first line, first paragraph and first page right, you never get around to writing the rest of the story.

    It’s interesting for me to read so many people say they base the decision of whether to buy a book on the first line and first page. If I pick up a book in a shop or look at it online I make a decision based on the synopsis on the back, but I never read the first line or page. I’ll only read those when I sit down to read the rest of the book. Which has sometimes proven for the best, as some books I really enjoyed had poor first pages, but really picked up from Chapter Two onwards. If I’d based a decision on the first page I would have missed some great books.

    As for memorable first lines I read recently, one certainly sticks out:

    “It was a good morning to kill.”

    That’s from ‘The Enemy’ by Tom Wood and I think it’s brilliantly effective. It gets your attention, gets you asking questions (who is this? Why are they about to kill someone? What is it about the morning that makes it a good one to kill?) There’s certainly a sense of threat to it. It’s talking about death in a very matter of fact fashion, which sets the mood for a book where the main character is an assassin and introduces you to his world. A successful

    All the Best.

  2. Interesting question. I don’t think that the first sentence has to be brilliant but it has to at least be good enough to tug the reader into the book.

    The best opening sentence I have read recently would be from A FOREIGN COUNTRY by Charles Cumming:

    “Jean-Marc Daumal awoke to the din of the call to prayer and to the sound of his children weeping.”

    It’s just what you want. The sentence immediately raises two issues: 1) where is Jean-Marc and 2) why are his children crying. Cumming doesn’t keep the reader from the answers to those questions for very long, but by the time he does the reader is hooked. And yes, the book is terrific.

  3. I believe that it can’t be emphasized enough how much a first line plays into the scope of the book. For just like first impressions, there is only one shot at a first line. Like you said, Clare, it can set the voice, tone, mood, and overall feel of what’s to come. It can turn you on or put you off—grab you by the throat or shove you away. It’s the fuse that lights the cannon. The examples you gave are some of my favorites. Here’s one more: It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. —Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)

  4. First lines are important, but I get the impression the only ones who vault first lines of novels into the stratosphere are other writers.

    We like to have conversations like this. “Gee, isn’t Charles Dickens opening line the best ever?”

    But in reality, as a reader, while I place value on the first line, I never read just the first line of ANY book to see if I like it. So for me, the first line doesn’t have to do handstands or leap tall buildings in a single bound.

    Yes, I have to work hard for a good opening, but I’m not going to obsess over it.

  5. First lines are important, but I tend to agree with Matthew that the truly memorable aspect of a good book is the rest of it. When I start a new project, I really work the opening chapter, sometimes writing it in very different ways to settle on what feels best. If I can’t get a handle on a first line, I come back to it. It saves me from having to stare at a blank file page.

    I love your choices of first lines, Clare. Nice post.

  6. I’m saving the first line for the rewrite, then I’ll probably obsess about it.

    Other favorites:

    The small boys came early to the hanging.
    (The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett)

    Down to the last day, even the last hour now.
    (The Testament, John Grisham)

    Alexander, Son of Philip, King of Macedonia, Pharaoh of Eqypt, Lord of Asia, returned drunk to his tent.
    (Shelkagari, Harold King)

    The last one is a great read, if you can find it,a story about three generations searching for the world’s largest diamond.

    Great post, Clare!

  7. A good first line is obviously preferable to a mediocre one. Building outward, it’s even more essential to have a great first page and, then, a great opening scene. Readers will not stop reading if the first line is rather modest. But they will if they’re not hooked into the action soon (the more difficult alternative is to capture with style alone, but not many writers have ever been able to do that).

  8. A first line is important, but I don’t think it’s the be-all-end-all. As has already been pointed out the story that follows has to back it up. “A screaming comes across the sky.” is a great first line, but I have never been able to finish the book that follows.

    Even a great first line isn’t always the most memorable thing about the book. I could not have told you the first line of 1984 off the top of my head, but I could have told you my favorite line from the book is “Do it to Julia.” Without going into detail for those who haven’t read it that rather pedestrian line conveys so much more of the theme and story than that fabulous opening line.

    IMHO an aspiring writer (or even an established one) can get so hung up a single aspect of a book – like an opening line – that he/she is paralyzed from getting beyond that until it is “perfect”. That’s not a good thing. It all counts.

  9. To me, “Call me Ishmael” has all the charm of a dentist’s drill. They both portend the beginning of excruciating experiences.

    I think that danger lurks in the quest for the perfect opening line. If the writer flogs any line too aggressively, concentrates too hard to meet some undefinable standard of perfection, the result can become something too writerly–one of Faulkner’s doomed darlings. I find it more helpful to think in terms of compelling images in the opening paragraph, and then in every paragraph that follows.

    (By the way, I found my autographed copy of To Kill A Mockingbird this weekend. There’s a picture of it on my Facebook page, www dot facebook dot com slash johngilstrapauthor.) Now THERE’s a good book.

    John Gilstrap

  10. I’m with Dave and Jim, for sure. How about, “Call me Kooky” for a first line? Or not.

    My fav is Don Winslow’s Kings of Cool. But I’m not writing it here:)

  11. Re: the opening of Moby-Dick. For one thing, readers in the 19th Century were much more biblically literate, and would have been intrigued by the line.

    But beyond that, read the rest of the opening page. It’s brilliant. It has voice and sardonic humor and attitude, precisely the things that make First Person POV work today. True, there was more patience back then, but I absolutely love Ishmael’s voice here, and later in the book, too.

    One example, when he’s forced to share a bed with Queequeg, and observes it is “much better to share a a bed with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” There is much that is packed in there, from humor to social commentary to moving the plot along.

  12. I have to say for the amount of time I spend on the first line and the first page I could probably write half another novel! I do think we often emphasize the importance of this way too much – but a killer first line is still impressive!

  13. JG –
    Please continue to grace this site with your views! The site is better off with your input.
    Without JRM and yourself I fear an overabundance of concordance.

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