But first . . .

By Joe Moore

Yesterday, my friend, Kris Montee (PJ Parrish), wrote an excellent post called Finding the Right Door to Enter Your Story. If you haven’t read it, do so the moment you finish this. Kris covers the good, bad and ugly of opening lines and chapters.

We’ve often discussed the power (or lack of) that first lines have on the reader. 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. 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 stick of dynamite.

Some first lines are short and to the point—built to create the most impact from a quick jab. Others seem to go on ad infinitum. And only when we arrive at the period at the end do we see how expertly crafted it was for maximum effect. Or not.

So in the spirit of sharing what I consider examples of pure genius, true literary craftsmanship, and genuine artistic excellence, I’d like to share what I think are some of the best first lines in literary history. Let’s start with two of the most famous:

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. —Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. —Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. —Samuel Beckett, Murphy (1938)

This is the saddest story I have ever heard. —Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (1915)

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)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

All this happened, more or less. —Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

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. —J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. —William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. —Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. —Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

It was the day my grandmother exploded. —Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

It was a pleasure to burn. —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

It was love at first sight. —Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961)

Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. —Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups (2001)

We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. —Louise Erdrich, Tracks (1988)

Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu. —Ha Jin, Waiting (1999)

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. —F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)

“To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.” —Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988)

The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm. —Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962)

Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me. —GŸnter Grass, The Tin Drum (1959; trans. Ralph Manheim)

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. —Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929)

He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.  —Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1900)

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.  —L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. —Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948)

Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women. —Charles Johnson, Middle Passage (1990)

In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together. —Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour. —David Lodge, Changing Places (1975)

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. —Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

Let’s finish with my personal all-time favorite:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

So which ones have I missed? If it’s not on this list, what’s your favorite first line?


tomb-cover-small_thumbMax is back! THE BLADE, book #3 in the Maxine Decker thriller Series is now available in print and e-book.


34 thoughts on “But first . . .

  1. Some of your examples are personal favorites of mine, as well. But did you notice how many are passive voice? Interesting how times have changed.

  2. Just about any book by Elmore Leonard…!

    “Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.”
    Freaky Deaky

    “Sunday morning, Ordell took Louis to watch the white-power demonstration in downtown Palm Beach.”
    Rum Punch

  3. One of my all-time favorite lines: “All things considered, it was a great night to die.” — Bait and Switch by Larry Brooks

  4. I look at all the ‘it was’ openings and think of my former agent who circled every use of ”was” in my first 3 chapters. (And “was” doesn’t automatically mean passive voice. It just past tense.).

  5. I sell mayhem, murder, and doom.

    First line from “Manhattan Nocturne” by Colin Harrison (whom the NY Times referred to the poet laureate of American thriller writers), in which his hero/narrator introduces himself as a newspaper man. Go to Amazon and read the entire first page (click the “Read Inside” tab under the cover image), which I often use as an example of stellar voice (only the adjectives on the entire page, but damn, what a picture it paints).

  6. “A screaming comes across the sky.” First line of Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon. Some people love it, others don’t. I guess that’s what makes it a classic. I’ve never been able to finish it, but that is a killer first line.

    Funny you should bring up I Capture the Castle. That’s what I’m reading right now.

  7. It will never be remembered, or quoted, as Hemmingway and Fitzgerald are; but I rather like the first line of my own book ‘The Conrad Kidnapping’—A shot rang out, shattering the silent night on pier 19, in Boston harbor.

  8. I’ve been an avid follower of this blog for over a year now and, as a novice writer, am learning a ton from all of you. These last posts on openings are helpful. A few of my favorite opening lines are:

    “I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.” Gillian Flynn, Dark Places

    “Let’s get one thing straight: I was the perfect man for this case.” Tana French, Broken Harbor

    Moving away from the mystery/suspense genre, one of my all-time faves:

    “Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.” Barbara Kingsolver, Poisonwood Bible

    • Jagoda, thanks for following TKZ. Sharing writer tips is our main mission, and it’s always great to hear positive feedback. I like all your examples. Thanks for sharing and good luck with your writing.

  9. “My family was always into death.”

    Kinflicks by Lisa Alther

    And the book is a ribald dark comedy about growing up.

  10. YA first sentences:
    The Teacher’s Funeral by Richard Peck:

    “If your teacher has to die, August isn’t a bad time of year for it.” (My apologies to all teachers)

  11. YA first line:
    The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis

    “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

    I love the tongue in cheek humor to these.

  12. “The eyewitness said he didn’t actually see it happen.”–A Wanted Man by Lee Child. Jack Reacher. ‘Nuff said.

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