Saturday, May 23, 2009

Fantastic First Lines

During my earlier posts about coming up with terrific titles, someone asked me what makes a strong first line. Oooo...now that's something I've never explored! I've appreciated them. Tried to develop them in my own books. But I've never really studied what it is about fantastic first lines that makes them stand out. So no time like the present, right?

I figured a good place to start would be with a few of my favorite first lines:

"It was Nathan's fault that I became God. It is, as I would learn, hell to be God." The God Game, Andrew Greeley (okay, that's two lines, but even just the first line is great.)

"The city was silently bloating in the hot sun, rotting like the thousands of bodies that had fallen in street battles." A Voice in the Wind, Francine Rivers

"This is my favorite book in the world, though I have never read it." The Princess Bride, S. Morgenstern

"A storm struck on the night Laura Shane was born, and there was a strangeness about the weather that people would remember for years." Lightning, Dean Koontz

"The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world." The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson

So, now it's your turn. What are some of YOUR favorite first lines?

Karen

10 comments:

Sharon A. Lavy said...

Have you ever dissected what makes a great first line? I would love to have a formula. I know, then it wouldn't be art, but still . . .

Lori Benton said...

You posted two of my favorites already (Lightning and A Voice In The Wind), but a few more would be:

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." The Hobbit, Tolkien

"It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance." Outlander, Diana Gabaldon

"Likely it was only two dreams crisscrossing paths, one snagging on the other in passing, but somehow the face that walked by me this morning, not four feet away, got tangled up with one from my past." Blue Hole Back Home, Joy Jordan-Lake

What captures me most in a first line is strong voice. Or a vivid and powerful description. If not that, then something unexpected, like a hobbit.

Catherine said...

Best opening paragraph:
"I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it's wrong what they say abou the past, I've learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out." The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Great first line:
"A grieving woman, I've decided, is like a creme brulee: she begins in a liquid state, endures a period of searing heat, and eventually develops a scablike crust." Doesn't She Look Natural by Angela Elwell Hunt

Great first line:
"That Wednesday two weeks before Thanksgiving was a bad day to find a corpse on campus." Rhapsody in Red by Donn Taylor

Thanks for addressing this, Karen. But, what makes them great?

Rebekah Greiman said...

"Marley was dead: to begin with." Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Richard Mabry said...

"The nun hit me in the mouth and said, 'Get out of my house.'"
-Try Darkness, by James Scott Bell

Lori Benton said...

Found this gem in Donald Maass' Writing The Breakout Novel:

"There is, in any great opening line, a miniconflict or tension that is strong enough to carry the reader to the next step in the narrative. Its effect lasts, oh, perhaps half a page, a little more if it is really good. After that another electric spark of tension needs to strike us. If it does not, our interest begins to weaken and will pretty quickly fade out."

Rick Acker said...

Great post, Karen. A few months ago, I started looking at openings of suspense novels for a class I was teaching. Here are some of my favorites:

"'I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one.'" --Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card)

"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 suspense novel (and the oldest known novel period): "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 first sentence of a suspense 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.)

Best,

Rick

Teri D. Smith said...

Here's one from James Scott Bell's Try Darkness.

"The nun hit me in the mouth and said. 'Get out of my house.'"

I've heard that you shouldn't open with dialogue since the reader doesn't yet know or care about the speaker, but if you can open with dialogue as intriguing as this, then you can break the "rules".

The whole opening passasage is just as good as this.

I guess the most important thing about the first sentence is intrigue. There's got to be something in it to make us read the next sentence.

I loved your examples!

Rel said...

Ok, here's a few I like:~

"Did you come here to play basketball or wage war?" - Mel Odom's Blood Lines

Summers were mostly reliable. They always followed spring. They always got hot. And they always promised twelve weeks of pleasure to the three children of Cat Lake. The summer of '45 lied. - John Aubrey Anderson's Abiding Darkness (I know more than the first line but I love it)

The boy's outline danced, ecstatic and elusive, across the razor-thin cross hairs of a spotting scope. - Mark Andrew Olsen's Ulterior Motives

Smooth moonlight, soft and timid as a sleeping babe's breath, seeped through the forest canopy, painting Old Man Oak's mossy beard with twisting ribbons of silver and shadow. - ARC of John Olson's Powers

I have seen paradise and ruin. I have known bliss and terror. I have walked with God. - Tosca Lee's Havah

I guess for me, a good first line or paragraph is one that makes me think, yep, I'm going to love this book. Of course, that doesn't always happen but I find if the first line grabs me, in most cases so does the rest of the book!

Kellie Coates Gilbert said...

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. Where Mercy Flows by Karen Harter