Monday, July 26, 2010

The First Line Should Kick a Novel Into High Gear

The first line of a novel should propel the reader into reading the second line. Why bother with 512 pages of a novel that bores you on the first page? In my younger days I had a rule that if I started a novel I needed to finish it. I've read a lot of dreadful novels.

Then my good sense kicked in and if I couldn't remember the first line of a novel by the end of the first page, I tossed the book into a box for Goodwill. How do you justify rejecting a Pulitzer Prize winning novel?

I tried to like Olive Kitteridge, the trade paperback by Elizabeth Strout published in 2008 by Random House. The first three pages are packed with endorsements from major newspapers. The review in O: The Oprah Magazine, started with the line, "Perceptive, deeply empathetic . . . Olive is the axis around which these thirteen complex, relentlessly human narratives spin themselves into Elizabeth Strout's unforgettable novel in stories."

In addition to a Pulitzer, the book also received a starred Kirkus review. That should have been my first clue. I rarely agree with Kirkus. Olive Kitteridge screamed literary novel. I like many literary novels. One of my recent favorites is Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. I bought it for the title. Let's compare the first paragraphs and see which you like best.

Here's Olive's first paragraph in the story titled "Pharmacy":

"For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild raspberries show their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorites, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging from the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold."

I fell asleep that night after the first line, but I did persist in reading the entire story convinced that if this book won a Pulitzer, it should deliver the goods. Even though the reviews of "mesmerizing . . . exquisite" and "maserfully wrought collection" impressed me, the passive snooze of the first paragraph left me in the dust, or should I say, stranded on the side of the author's roads: the snowy roads, the rainy roads, the summertime roads, and the wider road, not to mention the fog, the pines, the salt air, and the cold. It was a guy driving to work. Sorry.

Should I keep trying to broaden my horizons? I dropped Olive on the floor (fourteen bucks down the drain) and picked up Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. I knew the book was comprised of a series of letters dated just after World War II in London and on the Island of Guernsey--not a rousing structure for me--but a device that has been used successfully in the past. Here's the beginning of Guernsey:

"Dear Sidney, Susan Scott is a wonder. We sold over forty copies of the book, which was very pleasant, but much more thrilling from my standpoint was the food. Susan managed to procure ration coupons for icing sugar and real eggs for the meringue. If all her literary luncheons are going to achieve these heights, I won't mind touring about the country. Do you suppose that a lavish bonus could spur her on to butter? Let's try it--you may deduct the money from my royalties. Now for my grim news. You asked me how work on my new book is progressing. Sidney, it isn't."

What a clever way to begin a novel by a character who is a novelist: with great humor and the grim news that her latest book is stalled. How could I not keep reading?

Weather and road conditions? Breezy letter. Which would you rather read? I know. Many of you are saying, neither. I don't read literary novels. Well, neither do I, but one of the hallmarks of a great writer or editor is that they read outside their comfort zone. If you're a romance writer, read a few good thrillers or a literary novel. Your writing will improve with cross-pollination.

I looked for a list of the top 100 bad first lines in novels, but I couldn't find one except for the annual contest called The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest in which entrants write their versions of bad first lines. However, no one seems to have compiled a list of real bad first lines. Seems like an easy task.

However, the editors of American Book Review have compiled a list of the 100 Best First Lines of Novels. Perhaps this is the better route. Read great first lines, and it should inspire you to write a great first line for your novel. Following are a few of my favorites:

"Call me Ishmael." Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, 1851.

"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.

"They shoot the white girl first." Tony Morrison's Paradise, 1998.

"You better not never tell nobody but God." Alice Walker's The Color Purple, 1982.

What are your favorite first lines? Any genre, any era. I'd love to hear from you.


  1. Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. - Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)

    I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. - Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002)

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

  2. I love first lines! There are so many great ones! I'm not sure I have a favorite though. I liked both those openings, the first for the sentences and sensory, not so much plot.
    I've heard of the potato book and have wanted to read it. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. From the Lovely Bones--it was the best but don't ask me to quote it--my memory only knows it was perfect!

  4. I used to think I had to eat all the food on my plate, too. But no more.

    And I quit reading a novel when I don't get it. Even if it is a book I've been sent to review.

    Happily I don't get too many like that. But it does happen.

  5. Actually, I think I have more of a connection with the opening from Olive than Guernsey. The writer with a stalled career has been done so much that it’s almost cliché. In the Olive opening we see a man who is retired, but he’s not real pleased about it. I’m not saying it’s a great opening, but it beats an opening where one author is making fun of another author. Granted, it is subjective.

    It’s rare that I stop reading based on the first page of a book. As a reader, I don’t really care what happens on the first page as much as I care about what happens later in the story. As I writer, I realize that the first line is important, but as a reader I’ll give a writer a few pages to get into gear. But what I’m finding frequently these days is that writers will have a great hook on the first page but nothing happens in the rest of the book. Even if I remember the first line, the plot is forgettable and that is simply unforgivable.

  6. Sometimes, I go through my bookshelf, or order free samples from Amazon on my Kindle, just to read the first lines of different books.

    My favorite first lines are those that elicit a sense of intrigue. A question. Like...hmmmm, why is this happening? That, and a captivating voice!

    Here are a few from some books I've recently read:

    She left the world the same way she entered it: swathed in robes of scarlet so red and angry and portentious as to be mistaken for black. (The Moment Between by Nicole Baart)

    My life - my real life - started when a man walked into it, a handsome stranger in a perfectly cut suit, and yes, I now how that sounds. (Love Walked In by Marisa De Los Santos)

    You might know this one:
    Patient Discharge Statement: If I had known children break on the inside and the cracks don't surface until years later, I would have been more careful with my words. (from Walking on Broken Glass by Christa Allan).

    There are a thousand more that I've loved (and hated), but I can't gush over all of them here. Needless to say, I have a love affair with first lines.

    On a side note, I'm one of those weird contemporary romance writers who LOVES literary fiction.

  7. I enjoy strolling through book stores and flipping books open, often just to read the first lines.

    Here's one I'll quote until I'm blue in the face (pun intended):

    "From my first breath in this world, all I wanted was a good set of lungs and the air to fill them--given circumstances, you might presume, for an American baby of the twentieth century." from Peace Like a River

    ~ Wendy

  8. I'm a fan of James Scott Bell's opening lines, especially this one from his novel, TRY DARKNESS: The nun hit me in the mouth and said, "Get out of my house." That one hooked me.

    Of course, I like the opening lines from my books, too. If I didn't, I wouldn't have written them. But none of them feature summer roads and wild raspberries. I'm with you on that one.

  9. My favorite opening line of all time is from Stephen King's The Dark Tower:

    "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."

    That propelled me not into just reading the next line, but into reading the entire series of books like a sniveling Gollum seeking the Ring.

  10. If the first line of a novel doesn't captivate me, I usually go no further.

    While reading your post, I planned to mention my favorite line from James Scott Bell but I see the Doc beat me to it. How could you not want to read on about a nun who hit someone in the mouth?

    I usually don't like opening sentences with dialogue since I don't know who's talking or why I should care, but that one works in Try Darkness. My daughter recently read that book and was fascinated not only with the story but with the dialogue throughout the entire book.

    I teach creative writing to teens and searched last year for great first line examples to show them. As I searched my shelves, I was amazed at how many books opened with someone staring out over a landscape pondering or driving in a car. So I agree with your assessment of the two examples above. The Guernsey one had the added uniqueness of someone being so thrilled with real eggs after the war. Someone else recommended that book to me so it looks like I need a trip to the bookstore.

    Susan May Warren has great opening lines in her book, Sons of Thunder: "Markos Stavros would not go to war on the eve of his brother's wedding. Even if he wanted to murder his best friend."

  11. Oh yes, I love first lines! The one that packed the most punch for me and has always stuck in my mind is from 1984 by George Orwell -

    "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

    Right off the bat you know you're in for something you haven't experienced before.

  12. I usually read at least a chapter of a book before I decide whether or not to continue. If the book has a strong opening line, that's all the better. Here are some of my favorites:

    Cami Tang in Only Uni - Trish Sakai walked through the door and the entire room hushed.

    Sophie Kinsella in Twenties Girl - The thing about lying to your parents is, you have to do it to protect them.

    Meg Cabot in The Queen of Babble in the Big City - I open my eyes to see the morning sunlight slanting across the Renoir hanging above my head, and for a few seconds, I don't know where I am.

    Sandra D. Bricker in The Big 5-Oh! - Liv dug the shovel into three inches of snow and pushed as hard as she could, then tossed it to the side of the driveway.

    Anne George in Murder Runs in the Family - "Pukey Lukey is here," my sister Mary Alice murmured as she was ushered into the front pew beside me. She turned and gave the groomsman a little wave.

    Cami Tang's opening line made me wonder why Trish's entrance caused the hush. Sophie Kinsella presented something that everyone who has ever been a kid can understand. Meg Cabot piqued my curiosity. Sandra Bricker related and appealed to my dislike of shoveling snow, which is why I live in Florida. Anne George's opening line is just plain cute, and she has that quirky, humorous voice I enjoy!

  13. Lisa Samson started a novel (Tiger Lillie?) like this: "I have a skeleton inside of me." Right away, I love this character. Of course, we ALL have skeletons inside of us. But she's freaked out by skeletons, and is hyper-aware of not being able to get away from the one she carries with her. I immediately want to know more about what makes this character tick.

  14. I had to go searching for it, but I read this a while back as one of the WORST opening lines ever written. But I kind of like it. :-)

    “Cynthia had washed her hands of Philip McIntyre – not like you wash your hands in a public restroom when everyone is watching you to see if you washed your hands but like washing your hands after you have been working in the garden and there is dirt under your fingernails — dirt like Philip McIntyre.”

    P.S. - Thanks for the mention, Debby Mayne!

  15. My favorite all time opener is Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities. But, since that is shared already I've got to give props to my talented buddy, Shawn Grady, and the opening line of his new thriller, Tomorrow We Die.

    "I spent the day chasing the Angel of Death."

    How can you not want to keep reading? If you read his book you'll see a powerful line opening up just about each chapter. Well done, Mr. Shawn.

  16. I read at least the first chapter before deciding whether to continue a book. So the opening is not all that important to me. One of my favorite openers is from David Copperfield.

    "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."

    I'm reading Cynthia Ruchti's novel They Almost Always Come Home. The opening drew me in and the story has kept me there.

    "Do dead people wear shoes? In the casket, I mean. Seems a waste. Then again, no outfit is complete without the shoes."
    Pat Jeanne Davis

  17. My all time favorite opening is from WHERE MERCY FLOWS by Karen Harter (my good friend who now lives with the Lord):

    The judge always had the final say. Right or wrong, he was God. His truth was a hard, unbending line that never wavered. Not even for me.

    When I was young I called him Daddy.

  18. The opening line of the book I just finished reading is:

    "The girl was the first to hear the loud pounding on the door."

    The book is Sarah's Key by Tatiana De Rosnay. I really is the whole theme of the book in one line.

  19. My favorite opening line of all time is from Pride and Prejudice-
    "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

    I usually plod through to the end once I have started a book. Only because I am a fast reader. Although I do admit that I have put down a handful of books and written them off as a complete loss.

    The book I am currently reading has a great first line also; from Moloka'i by Alan Brennert:

    "Later, when memory was all she had to sustain her, she would come to cherish it: Old Honolulu as it was then, as it would never be again.

    I admit, it sucked me in...

  20. I agree on all these famous first lines being great stuff. But I notice when I pick up books to read, the ones that resonate with me, the ones I remember and think fondly of, didn't have a whopper first line that became ingrained in my brain. They just wrote a strong opening chapter and followed it up with the rest of a good book.

  21. What an honor to have a book mentioned in this list! I had to delete a lot of "not an opening line" chaff until that one remained. But I confess that among all my favorite books, I can't recall a single opening line. Is that the sign of something medical, a side-effect of a vacationless life, or a symptom of the fact that I remember poodle skirts?

  22. "It was a dark and stormy night..."

    This is the opening line of Bulwer-Lytton's novel which netted him the distinction of being memorialized as a terrible writer.

    It was also the opening line of Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time," which is a classic.


  23. Great post, Barbara. I pulled a bunch of first lines from suspense novels for a class I was teaching a couple of years ago. Here are some of my favorites:

    "It is cold at 6:40 in the morning of a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad." --The Day of the Jackal (Frederick Forsyth)

    "A man with binoculars. That is how it began: with a man standing by the side of the road, on a crest overlooking a small Arizona town, on a winter night." --The Andromeda Strain (Michael Crichton)

    For fun, here's the first line from what is arguably the oldest known novel: "He who saw the Deep, learned the sum of wisdom, discovered what was secret, and brought back a tale from before the Flood." --Gilgamesh (anonymous)

    Here's the longest opening line I found in a suspense/adventure classic: "Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesy, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17__, and go back to the time when my father kept the 'Admiral Benbow' inn, and the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut, first took up his lodging under our roof." --Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson)

    And here's the shortest: "So." --Beowulf (Seamus Heaney trans.)

  24. Hi Barbara

    Many thanks for the interesting blog.

    One of my favorite opening lines is: "Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person." The title of the book is also a strong hook--it's "Back When We Were Grownups" by Anne Tyler.

    I agree with you re "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society"--I don't usually enjoy books which are comprised of letters, but this is a beautiful book and I love the way in which all the characters come alive through their letters.

  25. What an impressive list of first lines! I once wondered how so many millions of books could find a readership, but every one was written for someone. We are an eclectic bunch the human race. I love my own authors' first lines, but the ones that drew me in were Rick Acker's. That's because I love suspense, thrillers, and mysteries.

    Here are two more I couldn't resist:

    "Ruth Warnecki paused to consult her map, even though she'd read it so many times it was worn and stained from use, with a smear of strawberry jam on one corner." --Catherine Coulter' FBI thriller Point Blank.

    "I have seen paradise and ruin. I have known bliss and terror. I have walked with God." --Tosca Lee's Havah, The Story of Eve.

    Fun exercise! I would add a little James Patterson, but his books are in the bedroom and it's 5 a.m. My husband might not appreciate me waking him up.

    Now on to today's blog!

  26. Havah by Tosca Lee is one of my all-time favorite books. Wow. Talk about bringing the story of Adam and Eve to life. Good mention on the first line.

  27. Have to agree with Sheila. I love Jane Austen.

    "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." - Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)