Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Writing Great First Lines

By Shirley Drew


“It was a dark and stormy night…”~Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

I’m one of those people who likes to complete things that I start. It used to be that if I began reading a book, I finished it no matter what. With two exceptions: Moby Dick by Herman Melville and The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper. Mark Twain comments on Cooper in a piece entitled, “Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses.” Of course, the novel Mr. Twain takes shots at is The Deerslayer, but you get the point. But I digress.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to believe that life is too short to either drink bad wine or read bad novels. These days I give a novel between 20 and 30 pages to convince me—sometimes not even that much. What convinces me to continue reading a new book? There are several things, but I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that the very first line will sometimes determine whether the book is going to have a chance.

Here are some of my favorites from books I’ve read, in no particular order:

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” ~Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

“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 (1951)

“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.” ~Stephen King, The Gunslinger (1982)

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” ~Gabriel García Márquez, (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa) One Hundred Years of Solitude

“It was a pleasure to burn.” ~Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

And here are some books I might read because of great first lines:

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” ~Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” ~Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups (2001)

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” ~Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948)

And finally, here’s a great first line from a book I will most likely never read: 

“Call me Ishmael.” ~Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)



jaybags said...

Hi Shirley -
I love this idea. Like you, I no longer apsire to finish every book I've started. Sitting right now by my bed are three books that I probably won't finish, despite the fact they came highly recommended. In each case I've reached a point -- somewhere between 30 & 50 pages -- and have simply, well, gotten bored.

And then there the books I can't put down -- in the last year those include: Cutting for Stone (Abraham Vergese), In One Person (John Irving), and, most recently, The Circle (Dave Eggers). What each of these three books tells me as I should expect to be riveted. With or without the first line -- in each of these three cases, however, I DO think the first lines are a good indication:

Cutting for Stone: "After eight months spent in the obscurity of our mother's womb, my brother, Shiva, and I came into the world in the late afternoon of the twentieth of September in the year of grace 1954."

In One Person: "I'm going to begin by telling you about Miss Frost."

The Circle: "My God, Mae thought. It's heaven."

Shirley Drew said...

Thanks for the comments, Jay--and the book recommendations! I've had "Cutting for Stone" for some time, but now it's next on my list. And I read your comments about "The Circle" on FB last week. Anyway, "book talk" is one of my favorite forms of conversation!

Melanie Bailey said...

I have a three lines test I use to decide if I want to take a book home with me. I look at the first line. Then I open the book to two other random pages and read a line or two. If they capture my interest and imagination at that point, I'll give them a try. Like you and Jay, I've given myself permission to put down a book that isn't "working" for me. That doesn't mean I really like all the books I finish. Some are disturbing (most recently, Gone Girl). But it's good to be disturbed sometimes :)

Sarah Sullivan said...

Great post! So relieved to know that someone else in the world wasn't enamored of Moby Dick. My current theory is that it is a very male oriented read.

A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean does it for me both in first and last lines. I can read either one and get a chill.

Opening line: "In my family there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing."

Closing line: "I am haunted by waters."

Goose bumps.

Shirley Drew said...

Thanks for you post, Melanie! I remember you telling me this story once. And you're right--Gone Girl WAS disturbing...but a good read!

Shirley Drew said...

Thanks, Sarah. Beautiful lines indeed. Have seen the film. Maybe it's time to read the book...

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