Think about it. The front cover gives you the whisper, “pick me up.” The back cover sings the “open, open, open” song and there you are. The first line. And that line, more than anything else in the book, has the power to make you want, or not want, to read the rest. At any point in the process you might put the book back on the shelf, pretty cover and interesting blurb notwithstanding. But the first line…well, there’s the hook and you’re the fish.
The bald fact of it is (wait, are their hairy facts? Nevermind. Carrying on.) a good opening line sets up the entire novel, and taking the extra step from good to compelling can bridge the distance between the slush pile and the editor’s desk. So what makes a truly excellent first line?
In looking through lists of famous first lines, I noticed a couple of similarities: conflict, motivation and, often weirdness. C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawntreader opens with, “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” Here you have one of the main characters and we already have permission to dislike him. Lewis likes simple, but other authors have done equally well with the amazingly complex. Consider the first line of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.
“One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.”
Pynchon lets us in on conflict and motivation, both for Mrs. Maas and any new characters who stumble into the plot in the future.
My personal favorite is the weird. I think I like it best because it can be made to do so many things. The weird opening line can intrigue, confuse, startle, amuse or even disgust you, but it’s never boring. Some of my favorites:
“The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard.” —Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts (193
“Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.” —Ha Jin, Waiting (1999)
“The moment one learns English, complications set in.” —Felipe Alfau, Chromos (1990)
“Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.” —Anita Brookner, The Debut (1981)
I’ve never read any of these books, but the opening lines make me WANT to. And that’s the whole point. So, what are your favorite first lines?