Have you ever noticed all the hype surrounding first lines? Some people make it seem like they put more time into coming up with the perfect first line than they did the rest of the book. Since I’m in the middle of writing a novel, this is obviously important to me. So many theories exist on what a perfect first line should be. Some people say it has to be an attention grabber. There must be a hook in it. Other’s use it just as a soft description of the opening scene. Obviously, one line does not a good novel make. But, if the first line isn’t great, will people read on?
This idea is particularly close to home for me because I’m a first line/paragraph kind of guy. Whenever I’m in a book store, I pick up several books and read the first paragraph. I’ve purchased many books over the years off the shelf merely because I opened them up and I liked the first paragraph. Sometimes these were books I wasn’t even planning on looking at, let alone buying. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have a strict set of rules for which first lines grab me and which don’t. If it feels right, I like it.
I decided to look at some books I’ve read (and loved) and their first lines to see what makes a good first line. Most of these are fantasy novels because, well, that’s what I read. I’ve thrown in one or two non-fantasy as well. From a rules standpoint, I only looked at the first line of Chapter 1. So many books have lengthy prologues. Those are obviously important as well. But, since Chapter 1 is the beginning of the book, and the beginning is where you would expect to find the first line, I stuck with it.
- “Suppose that you and I were sitting in a quiet room overlooking a garden, chatting and sipping at our cups of green tea while we talked about something that had happened a long while ago, and I said to you, “That afternoon when I met so-and-so . . . was the very best afternoon of my life, and also the very worst afternoon.” Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden.
- “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
- “Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.” Elantris, Brandon Sanderson. I’ve always been a fan of this one. It’s sort of the quintessential first line. It makes a HUGE promise which grabs you and makes you want to know what’s going to happen. But, openings this bold are difficult to pull off and not seem lame.
- “Ash fell from the sky.” Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson.
- “Szeth-son-son-Vallano, Truthless of Shinovar, wore white on the day he was to kill a king.” The Way of Kings, Brandon Sanderson.
- “The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend.” The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan.
- “Call me Ishmael.” Moby Dick, Herman Melville. (This is one of my favorite first lines ever!).
- “It was felling night, and the usual crowd had gathered at the Waystone Inn.” The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss. This book is high on my list of favorites, but not for this first line which, frankly, doesn’t do a whole lot.
- “The sun was already sinking into the deep green of the hills to the west of the valley, the red and gray-pink of its shadows touching the corners of the land, when Flick Ohmsford began his descent.” The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks.
- “Bast slouched against the long stretch of mahogany bar, bored.” The Wise Man’s Fear, Patrick Rothfuss.
- “I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and tell you he’s the one.” Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card.
- “On the 24th of February, 1815, the look-out at Notre-Dame de la Garde signalled the three-master, the Pharaon from Smyrna, Trieste, and Naples.” The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas.
- “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien.
- “The temperature of the room dropped fast.” The Amulet of Samarkand, Jonathan Stroud.
- “In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since one of those gentlemen that keep a lance in the lance-rack, an old buckler, a lean hack, and a greyound for coursing.” The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, Miguel de Cervantes. For those curious, the true spanish first line is: “En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivia un hidalgo de los de lanze en astillero, adarga antigua, rocin flaco ye galgo corredor.”
- “Hador Goldenhead was a lord of the Edain and well-beloved by the Eldar.” The Children of Hurin, J.R.R. Tolkien.
- “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
- “Amergo Bonasera sat in New York Criminal Court Number 3 and waited for justice; vengeance on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter, who had tried to dishonor her.” The Godfather, Mario Puzo.
- “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
- “It was a dark and stormy night.” A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L’Engle. The end-all-be-all of all first lines.
There are so many more good books out there, but these are a few I had within easy reach. I’m smiling as I write this because looking over the list I created makes me realize this didn’t help me narrow down an answer one bit. Only a couple of these are grand, ominous or otherwise throat-grabbing. the rest are either general scene introductions or, frankly, a little blah.
Each of these are great books. Obviously, you don’t have to have an Elantris-esque end-of-the-world threat in order to grab your attention. But it certainly helps. 🙂
Anybody else have any good first lines they’d like to share? I’m curious what your favorites are.