The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

Getting a good start: the first line

“All great authors know that a killer first line is almost more important than the first few pages, and authors put in hours of work just to get the right sentence on paper.”

– Mary Jane Hathaway

If you’re planning to plagiarize bits and pieces out of other people’s novels, stay away from the first line because if you find one that’s great, it’s probably on somebody’s list of first lines that are great. Even if people think your first line is great, it’s easy to Google it and see who–if anyone–wrote it before you wrote it.

As authors, we know we have to start our novels out with a bang. Some authors choose an explosion. Some authors choose sex. But far more authors figure out how to say something unexpected that also sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

A lot of us can think of great first lines. The trouble is, we can’t think of novels that go with them. Same is true with poetry, especially if you don’t usually write poetry. Sooner or later, those of us who write, will wake up and scribble down a perfect couplet. But then what? Usually, nothing. That’s all she wrote.

Since I don’t feel researching all the authors of my list of great lines to see whether they just wrote them or whether they spent years tinkering with them, I’ll say it’s better to just start your novel and get on with it rather than staring at a blank page or a blank screen waiting for an inspiring first line. That’s like “Waiting for Godot.” The line will never show up. So just forget about it and start writing. Once you’re done with your first draft, you can go back and see if your beginning not only sets the stage for the story, but hooks the reader.

There’s such a thing as being too cute and/or too clever with that first line. Once you have your darling line typed, can you keep up with it for another 40,000, 60,000 or 80,000 words? And if so, do you really want your entire novel to sound like that? For years, I’ve threatened to begin a novel with a line like: “Bob and Mary were killed while having unprotected sex when the tornado blew the condom billboard down on top of them.”

But then what? You’re right, nothing. I don’t know where to go with that, but if you do, feel free to use it as long as long as you list my name in your book’s acknowledgements as the “guiding force in my writing life.”

Having said all this, here are some of my favorites:

  • wintersnight“Congratulations. The fact that you’re reading this means you’ve taken one giant step closer to your next birthday.” – James Patterson, Maximum Ride, The Angel Experiment
  • “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”- James Joyce, Finnegans Wake
  • “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – George Orwell, 1984
  • “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.” – Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler
  • slaughterhousefive“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
  • “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” – William Gibson, Neuromancer
  • “All this happened, more or less.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
  • “Elmer Gantry was drunk.” – Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry
  • “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” – Raphael Sabatini, Scaramouche

Some first lines stay with me for a long time, haunting me like ghosts while I’m reading the novels they began. What about you? Any favorites?



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4 thoughts on “Getting a good start: the first line

  1. First lines always remind me of Billy Crystal in “Throw Mama From the Train.” He agonized so much over the adjective in his short sentence, I wanted to scream at him, “Use a thesaurus!” Mostly, though, I just wanted him to stop agonizing, to skip the first line and come back to it after the book was written. And yet, when he did find a first line, the book roared out of him, so I’m not sure what the moral of my anecdote is.

  2. Sounds like a never-ending cycle.

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