Lea Wait: The first line of a book or short story is usually the hardest to write. The best lines encapsulate the tone of the book, capture the reader, and hook him or her into the plot and main character. All in one line. Or, maybe two. The very best also let you know what time and place you’ll be reading about.
Some of my all time favorite? Ken Follett’s beginning to The Key to Rebecca, six words: “The last camel collapsed at noon.” I have that line printed out and stuck to my computer to show just how great writing can be; how much can be condensed into six words. Brilliant.
Three other favorites are from children’s books, which, because they are shorter, and children are less patient, I believe often have the best first lines. Most readers recognize the line, “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” It’s the perfect first line from Maine author E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.
And, because this is the season, and it was my favorite book for many years, I’ll include “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug. I’ll bet most readers of this blog will recognize that line, too: it’s the beginning of Louisa Alcott’s Little Women.
And one more from a book for children. “Did Mama sing every day?” asked Caleb. That one’s from Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall, a more modern classic, about a Maine woman who answers an ad from a young widower in Kansas who has two children and needs a wife and mother for his children. And, yes, Mama sang. And so will Sarah.
Kate Flora: Like Lea, I find that many of my most memorable first lines are from children’s books, perhaps because these were the books that were first read to me, and then read, in turn, to my children. I love Tootle, about a little train learning to be a big locomotive, which begins: Far, far to the west of everywhere is the village of Lower Trainswitch. All the baby locomotives go there to learn how to be big locomotives.
I think that being read books as children gives us a strong sense of the rhythm of language, and good opening lines condition us to want to go on with the story.
As I was thinking about first lines, I came across this link to what they assert are the 100 Best First Lines: http://www.stylist.co.uk/life/the-best-100-opening-lines-from-book Plenty of room to disagree here, but it was fun to go and read all of these first lines. Here are some samples which, appropriately, begin and end with Charles Dickens:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” Back When We Were Grownups, Anne Tyler
“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.” Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
“This time there would be no witnesses.” Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Douglas Adams
“Marley was dead, to begin with.” A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
James Hayman: My favorite openers are definitely not from children’s books. One of the best, I think, is from Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place: “Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all nor for how long she will stay.”
And speaking of sexy women, I also like the opening to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”
Finally my favorite from the crime writing genre, the opening to Michael Connelly’s, The Poet: “Death is my beat. I make my living from it. I forge my professional reputation on it. I treat it with the passion and precision of an undertaker–somber and sympathetic about it when I’m with the bereaved, a skilled craftsman with it when I’m alone.”
Kate: Love these choices, Jim. I can still remember when we weren’t allowed to read Peyton Place, so of course we all did. Growing up, knowing it had been filmed in the area, I would pass places that appeared in the movie, like the sign between Camden and Rockport that said, “Welcome to Peyton Place.”
Paul: I remember Tom Wolfe, in one of his many attacks on Norman Mailer, endorsing the first line of The Postman Always Rings Twice, and I am hard pressed not to disagree with him:
“They threw me off the hay truck around noon.”
It’s just a perfect declarative sentence for opening one of the greatest noir novels ever. Follett’s line, cited by Lea above, might be a deliberate nod to Cain.
That said, I have special affection for the beginning of Mailer’s much-maligned Tough Guys Don’t Dance (a book that, for all its Mailerisms, has its moments):
“At dawn, if it was low tide on the flats, I would awaken to the chatter of gulls. On a bad morning, I used to feel as if I had died and the birds were feeding on my heart. Later, after I had dozed for a while, the tide would come up over the sand as swiftly as a shadow descends on the hills when the sun lowers behind the ridge, and before long the first swells would pound on the bulkhead of the deck below my bedroom window, the shock rising in one fine fragment of time from the sea wall to the innermost passages of my flesh. Boom! the waves would go against the wall, and I could have been alone on a freighter on a dark sea.”
The thriller is set in Provincetown, but anyone who lives along the Maine coast—and has had more than a few bad mornings in his life—will recognize that unwelcome returning to consciousness.
I’m a real Hemingway aficionado (a fan of the work, not the man, although he is widely misunderstood). One of my favorites of his first lines is from A Farewell to Arms and represents everything we still treasure about his work:
“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.”
I have to add another, this one from For Whom the Bell Tolls:
“He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.”
Has any author ever done a better job of describing the emotional response we have to landscape than Hemingway?
How about Elizabeth Wharton’s Ethan Frome?
“I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.”
Tell me you’d stop reading.
And I second Lea’s admiration for the genius opening to Charlotte’s Web.
Kate: So, readers, what are your favorite first lines?
And stay tuned for January when we’ll do closing lines.
Happy Holidays to All!