marketing, Writers Co-op, writing technique

FIRST LINES

First lines should (obviously) suck the reader into the next line and launch the tone of the story.

“Alan Smith watched the man who had been shot through the brain.”
Serious.

“The home looked like any other on the street. But it hadn’t been there yesterday.”
Mystery sci-fi.

“Roy’s Reconditioning Camp for Cats was doing better than expected.”
Humor.

My favorite first line is from Catch 22. “It was love at first sight.”
Great!

Oh, and my least favorite first line:
“Since the publication of the eleventh edition in 1949, each new edition has been marked by a significant shift in publishing technologies, starting with the advent of phototypesetting in the 1950s, whereby text was rendered on photographic paper rather than as lines of metal type, the norm since the first edition.”
– The Chicago Manual of Style Gag me with a spoon.

Good first lines entice the reader to read on. What are some of your favorite first lines, including ones that you have used in your own stories?

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53 thoughts on “FIRST LINES

  1. Flash fiction often has great first lines, as the stories in our “Showcase” er, show. Regular contributors, Mimi Speike and Boris Glikman come to mind.

    “Every King of the Beasts harbours a horrible secret that is only revealed when he lies on his back and turns his head completely upside down.”
    – Boris Glikman, Of Mice and Lions

    Mimi, as you know, begins her stories with an illustration.
    Her drawings are powerful first lines.
    ———

    “Under the slashes of our swords, we still love.”
    – Chinese song
    Walking past my lady just now -she’s watching a Chinese movie- that line struck me. Another “type of first lines” might be the quotes that some authors begin their story with. That line could by itself inspire a story.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Perry Palin says:

    “Call me Ishmael.”

    “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.”

    “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.”

    “My mother and her mother were friends, and I knew Dana and her older brother and her younger brother and sister while we were still in elementary school.”

    “The teachers all said I was smart enough. Smart enough for what, I wondered.”

    “So I have sailed the seas and come . . . to B . . . a small town fastened to a field in Indiana.”

    Liked by 5 people

    • The Hemingway quote caused a flashback. Somewhere in Alaska once, I hiked with a scientist friend into an intact forest. The habitat had never been disturbed. The University of Alaska studied its ecosystem. Vehicles of any kind were forbidden, camping was forbidden, and you damn well better pack out every scrap you brought in. What did we do there? We lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest and watched the wind blow in the tops of the pine trees high overhead.

      Maybe, good first lines echo something in the reader’s experience or imagination?

      Liked by 5 people

      • Curiously, Hemingway’s character was lying on his stomach, “his chin on his folded arms,” so he wasn’t watching the wind blow in the tops of the pine trees high overhead. I wonder why there is no indication of what they sounded like.

        Liked by 4 people

    • To me, first lines have to grab my attention and make me wonder. Give me something to care about. Here, #1 doesn’t draw me in or make me care. #2’s narrator is clearly despicable. #3 describes a peaceful, pleasant setting, but doesn’t capture my curiosity about where the story might go. #4 reads like a shopping list that belongs buried somewhere in Chapter 2. #5 and #6 are snappy and make me ask questions about what they mean and where we are going. I’m in.

      Liked by 5 people

    • Perry Palin says:

      1. “Call me Ishmael.”
      Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”. First published in 1851. Those old novels didn’t need an immediate first line hook. In the 19th century people couldn’t turn right away to a Netflix Movie or social media if they didn’t care for the first line. The hook sometimes takes many lines to develop. This is an often quoted first line and I like it.

      2. “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, Catcher In The Rye”.

      3. “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.”
      Ernest Hemingway, “For Whom The Bell Tolls.”

      4. “My mother and her mother were friends, and I knew Dana and her older brother and her younger brother and sister while we were still in elementary school.”
      First line of my short story, “Secret Love”.

      5. “The teachers all said I was smart enough. Smart enough for what, I wondered.”
      First line of my short story, “Old Dead Poets.”

      6. “So I have sailed the seas and come . . . to B . . . a small town fastened to a field in Indiana.”
      First line of William H. Gass’ non-linear short story, “In The Heart Of The Heart Of The Country”. A wonder of a story for poets and students of philosophy, of which I am neither, but a great read even for me.

      Liked by 5 people

  3. MamaSquid says:

    “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.”

    -Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye

    (I see you, Perry!)

    Liked by 5 people

  4. mimispeike says:

    From Sly: “The steep drop of circular steps would have been a challenge for anyone, let alone an old wreck with bad knees.”

    This could take you anywhere. In Sly, it begins a work of screwball humor.

    Liked by 5 people

  5. “My mother didn’t try to stab my father until I was six, but she must have shown signs of oddness before that.”

    “The first time I met my Great-Aunt Majel, I threw up all over her antique Persian rug.”

    “I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.”

    “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”

    Liked by 5 people

  6. Here are the first sentences of the four books in my sci fi series. All first-person narration by my heroine:

    “Secrets of Immortality Gleaned from Alien Remains,” trumpeted The New York Times on page 1, sounding like the tabloids.
    Aliens Crashed in My Back Yard

    “Woo hooo, I’m flying a spaceship! I’m flying a spaceship around the Moon!” I whooped and hollered as I watched Star Choice sweep over the surface of the Moon—from the safety of my darkened bedroom.
    My Spaceship Calls Out to Me

    Here’s what everybody said to me afterward: “Moon walk by yourself? No connection to the ship, no backup? You are abso-friggin-lutely crazy, woman!”
    Space Girl Yearning

    I was sitting on my deck on a beautiful warm evening, just strumming Gibb and watching the Moon and stars out over the Pacific Ocean, when a call came in from across the cosmos.
    Alien Invasion: There Goes the Neighborhood

    Liked by 4 people

  7. Lines! An interesting mathematical concept, especially the curvy-wurvy ones, brings occasional nightmares of the quadratic and the dreaded calculus.

    I’ve spent months fighting with the most fearsome first-line monsters. Thanks for reminding me. 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  8. mimispeike says:

    I don’t think anything can beat:

    “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.”

    Liked by 5 people

  9. GD: We had a great discussion regarding this very subject back in the Book Country days. Can you do a Google Search and post the link here? I can’t do it from my cell phone. I think many involved in this discussion would greatly enjoy what we shared amongst each other back then

    Liked by 4 people

  10. Good first lines:

    1. “Officious little prick.”

    2. In the beginning was the Word…

    3. Once upon a midnight dreary; while I pondered weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore…

    4. Twas brilliant, and the slithy toves..

    5. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.

    6. Bow down; I am the emperor of dreams…

    7. There was me, that is Alex, and my three Droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really Dim, and we sat in the Kordova milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry.

    8. This book is to be neither an accusation nor confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. (I cheated a bit here: This is an epigraph which opens the novel.)

    9. I am an invisible man.

    10. The dead were waiting for him in the house. (This one mine: gave it to Mike Hagan to use.)

    Liked by 4 people

    • #7 I’ve read Clockwork Orange a couple of times, having seen the original X-rated version of Kubrick’s movie in between. (Only 30 seconds were cut to give it an R-rating and as far as I could tell, it removed only two repetitions at the end, cutting from the governor spoon feeding him to him and the girl in the snow.)

      Reading the opening now, I don’t remember the made-up slang standing out so starkly, but I do believe it seemed much more natural and meaningful in the film than in the book.

      As an aside: That movie was the first genuinely cathartic movie I’d ever seen, and so disturbing that as I pulled out the DVD to watch it again about 5 years ago, my heart rate increased to alarming rapidity causing me to debate the wisdom of re-watching it.

      Liked by 4 people

      • So many bits of brilliance in that movie: the cruelty and savagery of male adolescents that oftentimes rises to blackly comedic heights of self-hatred/nihilism, the observation that cops/criminals spring from the same youth gangs, the perplexing social challenge/question: What do we do with the psychopaths in our midst? PS. The book blew me away: much funnier than the film. I was envious, stunned, schooled by a master: I didn’t know language could DO that!

        Liked by 5 people

  11. Mike DiMatteo says:

    “It was a dark and stormy night….”

    This line gets lambasted at every turn, but I kinda like it…because…it was a dark and stormy night. At least now I know what I’m getting into…lightening bolts, thunder, torrential rain…and the Amityville house in the moonlit shadows.

    I didn’t realize how important first lines were until I started this writing journey. I took them for granted, I think, or maybe more accurately, didn’t pay attention to them. I do now.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Mike, you might enjoy the opening line of COLD TICKLE, the weird tale of mine soon to appear in THE RABBIT HOLE vol. 5: “It was a dark and storming night.” A knowing wink to the reader and a clear shout-out to that preposterous, wince-inducing, melodramatic first line of Bulwer-Lytton’s: a masterpiece of succinct grab-’em-by-the-lapels purple prosody.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. I wanted to display a few great openings in well-written nonfiction, but most of the works that came to mind required at least as much patience as the way Dickens began *A Tale of Two Cities*.  Hard to find a single short sentence (or even a paragraph) that is both informative and zingy.  Here are 2 outliers, a single sentence and what could be 2 short paragraphs:

    (1) Only once in my life have I been truly close to dying.

    (2) In the old Road Runner cartoons, Wile E. Coyote would frequently find himself running off the edge of a cliff.  But he wouldn’t, as our experience with gravity might lead us to expect, start falling to the ground below, at least not right away.  Instead, he would hover motionless, in puzzlement; it was only when he realized there was no longer any ground beneath him that he would suddenly crash downward. {¶ break}  We are all Wile E. Coyote.  …

    (2#) In the old Road Runner cartoons, Wile E. Coyote would often find himself running off the edge of a cliff.  But he wouldn’t start falling right away.  Instead, he would hover motionless, in puzzlement; it was only when he realized there was no longer any ground beneath him that he would suddenly plunge downward. {¶ break}  We are all Wile E. Coyote. {¶ break}

    I got (1) from page 1 of Sean Carroll’s *The Big Picture*, where it starts a “Prologue” that somehow eluded the tradition of using lower-case Roman numerals to paginate early stuff that many readers would skip.  Should I have looked where many readers would start?

    I got (2) verbatim from the opening of Chapter 1 on page 9 of the same book, then tweaked it to yield (2#).  Yes, (1) and (2 or 2#) both fit the same book.  It’s a great read, with hardly any other places where a brevity freak like me wants to tighten the writing.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. My favorite opening lines.
    1) Stephen King, THE GUNSLINGER: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
    2) Albert Camus, THE STRANGER Translated by Stuart Gilbert): “Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.”
    3) Irvine Welch, TRAINSPOTTING: “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”
    4) Kurt Vonnegut, SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE: “All this happened, more or less.”
    5) JD Salinger, CATCHER IN THE RYE: “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.”

    Liked by 2 people

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