The Making of a Great First Line in Fiction

When I was young I would read entire novels before deciding they were bad. That slowly reduced to half, then a few chapters, then one chapter, then a few pages, then a few paragraphs, then a few sentences. It is not rare for me to decide against reading a book on the first line now. There are 130 million book titles in the world, with millions more being created each year, I have no need to read something that isn't good (except I do study things for writing now so that's not completely true). The first line sets the pace for the entire reading experience. I am going to dissect the first line experience today.


1)

My favorite first line of all time belongs to my favorite novel of all time, Replay by Ken Grimwood.

Jeff Winston was on the phone with his wife when he died.

This is a completely normal sentence until the very last word. Jeff Winston was on the phone with his wife when he sneezed. That is a boring sentence. Jeff Winston was on the phone with his wife when he died. That is a mind bending trip. It makes me think about my death, "What will I be doing?" It makes me think about my life. It makes me question everything. Also, where is the story going to go after that? I really want to know, and after you know you want to go through the experience again. An amazing first line.

2)

Next, The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger by Stephen King. This is King's most famous first line, maybe his most famous sentence overall. I don't usually read King because I don't particularly like his subjects, but this is an awesome first line.

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

Now, I thought the book was okay, but this line is great. I actually think the best part of the book other than this line was the 2003 forward. Anyway, this line is an entire story. Actually, it is the entire book in a single line. My mind immediately starts filling in the details and imagining this epic scene played out with various episodes and subplots included. It's like an outline drawing that is begging to be colored in, a vacuum in narrative space that desires to be filled.

3)

Howard Roark laughed.

That's the whole thing, but there's more to it than at first appears evident. This is the first line of The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. This line is pure characterization, the first few pages are too. What is he laughing at? It pulls you forward in the story. What people find humorous is extremely revealing because of the uniqueness of laughing. Laughing evolved, and you can see this in the development of babies, as a mix between a coo towards the mother and crying from being startled. Notice that people laugh until they cry, and sometimes crying turns into laughter. It's because there's a fine line on that continuum. Howard Roark is benignly startled by all of existence.

4)

All children, except one, grow up.

The death of a child immediately springs to mind, but almost just as fast I realize that that can't be it because that's a lot more than one. I want to know what is meant here. It's the first line of Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie. In examples 1 through 3 all of the first lines are also paragraphs. This book is different, that is only the first sentence in a seven sentence paragraph. It has a great last line too, we better take a look at the whole thing.

All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, "Oh, why can't you remain like this for ever!" This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.

I love that last line. I have a bit of a compulsion to look at and explore books. I also have a habit of reading the first line or paragraph of book after book in stores. My mother and I were at Meijer recently and I showed her this first line because I think it is pretty good. She snuck back the next day and bought it for me as a Christmas gift. Since I'm not too worried about the specific timing of gifts she received her gift in the mail yesterday under her name and opened it, the first of the Longmire Mystery books. Since she had her gift she wanted me to open one of mine and wouldn't accept no as an answer. I've seen Peter Pan in several movie and play formats, I think I might read the book soon as well.

5)

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

That's the first line of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's (Philosopher's) Stone by J. K. Rowling. I think it's the fifth best line out of the five lines we've seen so far. There is something to it though. That last bit makes it seem that something is not as it should be, like someone trying to compensate for something and making it obvious by overdoing it. It seems to make you make a prediction that actually, things are not normal. Still, I wish the first line was about Harry instead.



Can you see any patterns yet? I am having trouble. There is the highly abstract pattern that the first line makes you want to read more. You could sum that up by saying that it has some intrigue to it, but I'm not certain that is very helpful.

1) Gives us an unexpected twist.
2) Gives us an entire story.
3) Gives us characterization.
4) Gives us an unexpected twist and a bit of a mystery.
5) Gives us a suspicion.

There's not much of a pattern there. Let's do five more and see how that goes.



6)

This book is largely concerned with Hobbits, and from its pages a reader may discover much of their character and a little of their history.

That is the first line of the prologue from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien. That sounds a lot like a narrative book of history, it basically says that it is. It is focuses on characterization. prologues are unwieldy beasts at times. Often they are used as information dumps, that's especially common in fantasy, and this one is a good example of that. What if we skip the prologue?

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

That pulls us into a current event, and makes us wonder what is happening in Hobbiton. It also focuses a lot on characterization. It still has a bit of a history narrative feel to it, which is part of Tolkien's style.

7)

It's debated which book you should start with when you read The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. I started with The Magician's Nephew, so let's look at that first.

This is a story about something that happened long ago when your grandfather was a child.

It seems like Lewis's own version of "Once upon a time, in a land far away..." You immediately know that you are reading a fairy tale. It makes me feel like a child that is being told a story of wonder. There is some nostalgia in it. What about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?

Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.

Notice that the Oxford professor didn't use an Oxford comma, ironic. Although if I called it a serial comma, a series comma, or a Harvard comma then it would seem less so. This seems to be a fairy tale intro mixed with characterization that doesn't characterize, it's just a name introduction. You do know who the story is going to be about, and I think that actually makes it superior to the Harry Potter first line.

8)

He lay at the very threshold of death, his youthful vitality destroyed, his spirit broken.

That's the first line of Dark Ages by Valerie L. Price. I like that first line. I think that would make a great voice over opening for a movie or a show, or a great opening line for a narrative speech. We are starting right in the middle of the most dramatic part, and I like that. A clash of values, high stakes, choices to be made and actions to be taken. We are in the thick of it and we know that it isn't going to be boring. The two greatest sins that a writer can commit are boring the reader and confusing the reader. This doesn't do either of those.

9)

It was night again.

That's the first line of the prologue from The Kingkiller Chronicle: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. It gets a lot better if I include the second line, which finishes the first paragraph.

It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.

It has a bit of a mythical feel to it, almost a fusion of prose and epic poetry. I like that, and apparently a lot of others do too. We definitely want to know what the three parts of this silence are. There are five more paragraphs in the prologue, which that second sentence is going to pull you through, and by the time you finish the prologue you know that you are reading a good book. Explicit foreshadowing, a worthy technique.

10)

Abner Marsh rapped the head of his hickory walking stick smartly on the hotel desk to get the clerk's attention.

That's the first line of Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin. Strong characterization in the middle of action and precluding an interaction. It isn't an iconic line, but I'm going to read what it written next.



Alright, so what do we have here.

6) Characterization, and characterization with an ongoing event.
7) Classic, seeming, fairy tale openings.
8) Dramatic high stakes situation.
9) Explicit foreshadowing with a little epic poetry styling.
10) Characterization with description through action pointing to interaction.

I'm still not seeing much of a useful pattern for creating first lines. I can't remember how I've started my short stories. Let's look at those.



11)

Hanniba'al was born at the age of ten.

That's the first line of The Baptism of Hanniba'al by Jeffrey Alexander Martin. That little story goes on to describe what the first sentence means. I like it. It has some intrigue and mystery to it, "What does it really mean?" that pulls you through the story.

12)

"What story would you like to hear kiddo?"

That's from The City of Peace by Jeffrey Alexander Martin. It has a completely different feel than the last short story I mentioned. I think I like the Hanniba'al opening better, but they are hard to compare. This is kind of, a little, like the fairy tale openings, but with more of a contemporary colloquial feel to it. I like variations on it to that could change the setting somewhat: "Hey kid, what story do you want to hear?", "What story is it going to be tonight kid?", etc.

13)

Elantris was beautiful, once.

That is a foreboding statement. I like it. We know we are in bad times, and bad times create value conflicts, and thus drama. That's the first line of the prologue from Elantris by Brandon Sanderson. The first line of chapter 1 has a similar structure.

Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.

Both of these sentences make me ask the same question, "What happened?" I am, of course, going to read on to find out. And I connected with that story well because of its focus on chronic pain.

14)

In the country of Westphalia, in the castle of the most noble baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh, lived a youth whom nature had endowed with a most sweet disposition.

That's the first line of Candide by Voltaire. It's a mix of a variation on a classic fairy tale opening and some characterization.



This search is a bit frustrating. It seems that there are a number of different ways that you can open and the pattern is to scattered. That is something that I like about writing though, it's a subconscious process and formulas have a tendency to fail, well, the commercial tropes seem to work well for sales. Maybe I could discern a half dozen major tendencies in good opening lines, but I'm not sure it would really help with my writing. When I give speeches I like to fall back on a structural pattern that I like and works well. I open with a dramatic question, use a good pause, dive into a story, finish with the point. It's a great structure. I like it and audiences like it. I was looking for a bit of a parallel here, but I haven't particularly found it. I think I am going to find that my first lines will fluctuate significantly, just as the juxtaposition of the first lines from my two short stories shows. Skill is largely the development of pattern recognition, and a lot of that has to happen subconsciously. The neural network begins in struggle, and through use it develops automaticity. I just need more input, and more output.

You are welcome to join me in my exploration at JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

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