The First Line Game, part II

By Joe Moore

Last month, my blogmate Jim Bell posted a blog called The First Line Game, a cool exercise he and some friends do to have fun with the first lines of their WIP. 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 cannon.

Some first lines are short and to the point—built to create the most impact from a quick jab. Others seem to go on and on and on. And only when we arrive at the period at the end do we see how expertly crafted it was for maximum effect.

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?

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THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 2011
"A knockout apocalyptic thriller." – Douglas Preston

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The First Line Game

James Scott Bell

A number of my novelist friends share an e-mail loop, and from time to time we put up the first lines of our WIPs. It’s always fun to strut our stuff and see what others are doing.
First lines can also be an idea generator. Dean Koontz, in his book How to Write Best Selling Fiction (1981), told how he used to do this all the time, in order to find material. One day he wrote this:
“You ever killed anything?” Roy asked.
He stared at it awhile, then decided Roy was fourteen and talking to a younger boy. And from that one line he developed what became The Voice of the Night.
Joseph Heller wrote this line, without knowing anything else: In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid. This became the genesis of his massive satirical novel, Something Happened. (The line was moved further in by Heller once the book was finished, but it was the line itself that suggested the larger work).
I was at Bouchercon last week, in a good place because I had just submitted my manuscript to my editor. I am about to begin another novel, so sitting in the hotel lobby one afternoon, I was “in between.” I took out my notebook and wrote this line:
He had loved her since she was six years old.
Now, that is not my usual style, and it has the word had in it, which I would normally try to eschew. But that’s what I wrote. Then I kept on writing, to find out what the scene was about. When I got to the end of the page I had made two startling discoveries, both of which I’ll keep to myself as I may actually want to write this thing!
It is very cool to find ideas this way. Do you ever do that?
Okay, if you’re a writer, do you want to share the first line of your WIP?
If not, what is a favorite first line from a recent book you read? 

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The First Page

By John Gilstrap

Greetings from Muncie, Indiana, where I have the honor of serving on the faculty of the Midwest Writers Conference on the campus of Ball State University. As part of my responsibilities, I’m evaluating students’ manuscripts. I had forgotten how much I learn about my own writing by helping others improve theirs.

The manuscripts submitted to me are all thrillers, and the submissions were limited to five pages in length. As you might expect, the competency of the writing–from a commercial standpoint–varies fairly significantly among the students I’m evaluating, but I’ve noticed a common denominator among all of them that I think is a potential trap for writers everywhere: Slow first pages.

In this particular batch, the slowness trap is mostly about physical description. We open with a detailed rendering of eye color, fabric, hand gestures or in one notable case, breast size. In six of the ten manuscripts I evaluated, literally nothing had happened by the end of the five-page submission.

In the early drafts of everything I write, I seem to need a few pages of warm-up before I really get down to the business of telling the story at hand. That’s my process, and like all things process-related, I don’t even try to understand it anymore. It just is what it is. But I always go back and edit out all of that stuff. At least I try to.

I occasionally hang out in bookstores and watch people shop for their next book. The pattern is universal: Look at the cover; read the jacket notes; read the first page. Inexplicably to me, a significant minority also read the last page. Then they make their decision. I make my decision the same way. Don’t we all?

Those first few pages need to really sizzle. With any luck at all, the first line really sizzles. Ditto lines two, three, four . . . all the way to the end of the book. There’s probably some forgiveness somewhere in the middle, once you have the reader hooked, and they’ve already spent their money, but man those first pages are the audition. They’re the sales pitch. Thy’ve got to scream.

Do you obsess about your openings? Do you re-write the beginning a dozen times like I do? Are you constantly aware of that reader out there who’s judging you from a cold start based only on those first words?

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