First Month, First Week, First Lines

How many times do we, as writers, hear this: the first line of your book is the most important thing you will ever write.

Wow. That’s heavy. That makes you almost not want to start writing. It also makes you agonize over those words. Ripping them apart at the seams, reassembling them. Is this really what I want to say? Is this really the first impression I want readers to have of my character? Is this going to grab someone by the throat and never let them go?

I’m not sure I’ve ever written a great first line. For me, the key is to just get something down. Worry about the rest of it later. In fact, author Philip Margolin said that he once rewrote the first page to one of his books more than 20 times before he was satisfied with it. But he didn’t worry about it in the beginning. If he had, who knows if he’d ever have written the rest of the book?

Can you remember the first line to your favorite book? Word for word, perfectly? I’m not sure I can. I have a lot of favorite books.  But can I remember the first lines off the top of my head? No. So let me go to the bookshelf . . . aha. Now. Let’s see if they’re any good:

  • “It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance.” Diana Gabaldon, Outlander
  • “‘Too many!’ James shouted, and slammed the door behind him.” Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising
  • “I heard the mailman approach my office door, half an hour earlier than usual.” Jim Butcher, Storm Front
  • “Everybody wants to know how I did it.” Kin Platt, Sinbad and Me
  • “Mr. and Mrs. Dusley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Hmm. Not bad. Cooper’s is clunky; starting off with dialogue is always tricky, particularly in this case because we have zero base of reference and because James isn’t even the protagonist of the novel. But the rest do provoke questions. Why is the mailman half an hour early? Is that sinister? Why are the Dusleys so proud to be normal — and is that status going to be threatened soon, maybe by the appearance of a not-normal nephew? 🙂

Can I remember some first lines off the top of my head, even though they don’t belong to favorite books? YES. For example:

  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Of course, this is from Pride and Prejudice.
  • “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” The Metamorphosis — definitely not my favorite story, but that line! The problem with this line is that Kafka never delivers on the answers. We never learn how poor Gregor became a bug, just how miserable his life is now that he’s become one.

The American Book Review compiled a list of their top 100 best opening lines from novels: I admit, I don’t agree with them all. “Call me Ishmael” is their #1? I don’t like this line. Never have. It provokes no questions in me whatsoever. Still, there are plenty of others on the list that do intrigue me.

  • #8:  ” It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” —George Orwell, 1984 (1949). Clocks striking thirteen? Where does that happen? When? The reader is instantly beset with questions, which can only be answered if they keep reading.
  • The same is true for this one:  “124 was spiteful.” —Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987) Does she mean the literal number 124? Is 124 a name? A door? A room? A date? Readers instantly want to know.
  • This one, too:  “In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.” —David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988) In the beginning? What does he/she do after that? Messages for whom? About what?

A great first line has that quality. It makes you want to keep reading. It creates questions that demand to be answered.

Most of the first lines I like best are short and to the point. But the first line of I, Claudius, is much longer:

  • ” I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.” —Robert Graves, I, Claudius (1934)

This one does provoke questions, of course – but more importantly, this line gives us Claudius’ personality and voice. We know we’re going to have a sympathetic, yet strong, character to follow. We know the setting. We know the time period. We’re not really beset with questions — but we are curious to know more about Claudius and how he’s acquired all these nicknames and titles. 🙂

Generally, I don’t think you can write the first line of your novel until you’ve written the rest of it. I’m not even sure that you can write the first page of your novel until the rest is done — in large part because you may find your true Page 1 is stuck somewhere near Chapter 4. (Been there, done that.) It’s a challenge and an art. But maybe if we take some time to study some really good first lines, we can get a sense of what ours should be.

3 thoughts on “First Month, First Week, First Lines

  1. I love this type of advice when couched in such terms like you did here! It’s one of those things about writing that people put way more weight on it than they need to. The first line should pose a question to be answered by the story, not be a logline that completly encapsulates it. The first line isn’t the story, the ones that follow it however are. Maybe I’m strange, but I feel like people put too much pressure on it. If it is well written, and asks a question to be answered that is compelling enough to pull a reader in, well, what more can really be asked? That’s its job after all, but some ask it to do something it isn’t meant to do.

  2. Totally agree! I think people put WAY too much emphasis on that first line (and when I say people, I mean agents and editors). As a reader, I’m willing to skip over a bad first line, maybe even a bad first page, if the novel picks up quickly and I already know I want to read it. Now, if that first chapter is bad, I’ll reconsider. But for me, a so-so first line isn’t a deal breaker.

  3. Pingback: Notes from a First Page Panel | KS Writer & Teacher

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