First Line: Make it a Doozy
Even since that one guy got tired of hunting and gathering, sat down on a rock near the fire, waved for others to gather around, cleared his throat and said the words “Once upon a time…” we’ve been suckers for a good story. And it’s always that very first line that draws us in, makes us check out of our own lives and enter a new world. The opening. The kicker. The hook. The first sentence of a story or novel has got to be the ultimate pick-up line.
If you’re like me, you’re happy as a pig in poo browsing bookstore shelves reading first sentences. Some word-strings are so powerful it’s impossible not to continue reading. Some tease with poetic beauty. And some are so brilliantly crafted they almost tell a story in themselves.
You’re probably familiar with these most memorable first sentences in literature:
- Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
- Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy,
- Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. —Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
- It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… —A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens
- It was a dark and stormy night… —Paul Clifford, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. (The sentence was used again by Madeleine L’Engle at the start of A Wrinkle in Time.)
Here’s are a few of my personal favourite first lines of novels.
- They shoot the white girl first. —Paradise, by Toni Morrison.
- It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. —The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath.
- “When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,” Papa would say, “she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.” —Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn.
- “Officious little prick.” —The Shining, by Stephen King.
- The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a wild night with an adolescent virgin. —Memories of my Melancholy Whores, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
- She copes. —Paula Spencer, by Roddy Doyle.
- Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. — Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk
- The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami. —Another Roadside Attraction, by Tom Robbins.
- “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.” Sabbath’s Theater, by Philip Roth.
Many children and young adult books have rich and intriguing first lines. You might remember these:
- The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him “WILD THING!” and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” so he was sent to bed without eating anything. —Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak.
- Sophie had waited all of her life to be kidnapped. —The School of Good and Evil, by Soman Chainani
- If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. —A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket.
- There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. —The Voyage of the Dawn Trader, by C. S. Lewis.
- There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. —The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.
- The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. —The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson.
- “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. —Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White.
I’m really interested in the first sentences of short stories. Concise by definition, short stories rely on the opening to set the tone and launch the tale even more so than for a novel. Here are a few first lines of short stories that have stuck with me:
- Miss Mandible wants to make love to me but she hesitates because I am officially a child. — Me and Miss Mandible, by Donald Barthelme.
- My first and favorite task of the day is slaving over the Iliana Evermore Fairy Castle. —Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror, by George Saunders
- “My lover is experiencing reverse evolution.” —The Rememberer, by Aimee Bender.
- A woman has written yet another story that is not interesting, though it has a hurricane in it, and a hurricane usually promises to be interesting. —The Center of the Story, by Lydia Davis.
- “I wouldn’t fuck Prince if he was the last man on earth,” Sonya told her friends, drunk and searing with challenge, that New Year’s Eve before the end. —1999, by Pasha Malla.
- The other day, Bobby Henzel and Nanami Kazikuyo drew up a list of things that Heaven doesn’t have. —Atheists Were Right About Almost Everything, by Neil Smith.
- Fucking fuck, there’s no place worse than the port side of the Luxurious CBS yacht. —Survior, by Douglas Coupland.
- First of all, I should point out that the topic of why you should not talk during a fire drill is such a large and complex topic that I cannot do full justice to it in only one thousand words. —One Thousand Word on Why You Should Not Talk During a Fire Drill, by Mark Halliday
- I once loved a woman who grew teeth all over her body. —Dentaphilia, by Julia Slavin.
And it you’ve read The Little Washer of Sorrows, you might recall this sentence:
- The day Margot discovered her true nature began like any other—she woke up, gave Pete a blow job, and went downstairs to fry up a pan of bacon. —Captcha, by Katherine Fawcett.
Yup, it’s a doozy.
The very first few words in the very first story in my very first published collection of fiction, and there’s both fellatio and cholesterol. Although I’ve had some backlash, I stand by the sentence. I knew it would be provocative. Racy. A ball-grabber, if you will. But it’s the kind of thing that Margot would really say; what she would really do. It’s essential to her character, and it pushes the reader into the story whether they like it or not. Margot won’t be censored—she’s the kind of character I had to give those first words to. If you have a problem with that sentence, I encourage you to take it up with Margo. I blame her completely, at least for the first line.