First lines.

I didn’t grow up in the tradition of memorizing great swaths of poetry or prose (this is an entire subject of great regret) so it means something when I can quote a first line without pulling out the book. Think about this. It is one line. The first line. The one read before all the others on hundreds of pages, and yet it sticks in the mind.

For example –

  • Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. (Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind)
  • The small boys came early to the hanging. (Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth)
  • The last camel collapsed at noon. (Ken Follett, The Key to Rebecca)
  • The gale tore at him and he felt its bite deep within and he knew that if they did not make landfall in three days they would all be dead. (James Clavell, Shogun)
  • Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)

More recently –

  • Lydia is dead. They they don’t know this yet. (Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You)
  • The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we understood the gravity of our situation. (Donna Tartt, The Secret History)

In each sentence, the tone for the entire book is established. The major point of struggle is identified. If Scarlet hadn’t bewitched men there would have been no book. If the camel hadn’t died the spy would have arrived in better shape and not met an English officer and there would have been no book.

Anna Karenina is a novel about the thin line between a happy and unhappy family. In Shogun, James Clavell’s near wrecked sailor arrives on shore and changes the course of history.

Celeste Ng and Donna Tartt are more explicit in setting up a mystery. Someone is dead and it will matter from this page forward.

In a perfect world, the first line flows off the pen. Highly doubtful in reality. A first line doesn’t have to aim as high as these examples, but it doesn’t hurt to try.

Anyone have favorite first lines they’d like to share? Visit us on Facebook, we’d love to hear from you.

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