The 12 Best First Lines Ever Written and what I learned
Because I've been ugly, I've gotten weird opportunities in life. The same with a good first line of a novel (or even a blog post).
The line contains some ugliness and some mystery. Enough for the reader to say, "this is different" and "maybe I should continue on so I learn more."
1. "Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can't be sure". - Albert Camus in "The Stranger".
There's death, confusion, apathy. The entire book is in that first line. Why so unemotional over his mother's death? Why is he unsure? The entire book is in this line.
2. "I am an invisible man" - from "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison
Does he have super powers? Or is it a metaphor? How does an invisible man justify his existence? Plus the direct simplicity as if he gave up. Why did he surrender so easily? Did the world beat it out of him
3. "I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won't bother to talk about, except it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead."
- Jack Kerouac in "On the Road".
He had an illness. A split with his wife. But these play a back seat to "I first met Dean".
Things are about to change. Will he find meaning in "Dean"? Why is Dean so important that he it's not even worth talking about the "serious" illness or the breakup?
4. "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."
100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
He's facing the firing squad. How did he get there?
It takes the rest of this Nobel-winning book and generations of story to get us back full circle.
" Somehow it started with the discovery of ice - symbolic of cold, of the mysterious. He was a boy then (innocent), nostalgic ("father") and now he's a "Colonel"! about to be killed. The entire novel stuffed into that microcosm of a sentence.
5. "The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we understood the gravity of our situation." —The Secret History by Donna Tartt
"snow melting" - idyllic. And "melting"- slowness, seasons changing, light, even hope. And yet, "Bunny had been dead" - Horror - and not only dead but "several weeks" and why did it take several weeks to "understand the gravity" - Cruelty, Apathy in the idyllic.
In just a few words we get what the story will be about (Bunny is dead), we get a feeling of things changing (snow is melting) and we get a hint of cruelty (it took a few weeks to understand).
Now the reader is charged with a mission: find out what's going on!
6. "All this happened, more or less." —Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
I love when writers gift us with mystery. "All of this happened" and "more or less". Well. did it happen or not? Is the author unreliable?
Why did he include this line instead of just starting the story? Writers don't normally say "This happened:" We buy into the fact that it happened else the writer wouldn't write it.
A) we get the sense this might be a true story, else why specifically state that it happened.
B) the author admits he's unreliable (which is unusual. You won't see that in a James Patterson novel).
C) we sense a sort of "surrendered" tone in the author's voice. "more or less". He doesn't really know and he either doesn't care or it doesn't matter.
D) We get the sense that he's in on this journey with us. We will follow him into his path of unreliability.
7. "It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel." —A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
A) "It" and "usual way". What is "it?" and what makes it "usual"? We get curious instantly.
B) the bathroom of a hotel. Hotel has a bit of anonymity (why not at home) and luxury (you have to pay).
C) the first assumption is that it must be sexual. So we get that tension without explicitly saying it.
D) The key word: "began". Something sexual and mysterious (aka the hotel) begins our journey. Onwards!
The sentence feels like the beginning of a noir novel. Something a 1920s detective might say. Something bad will happen after "it".
8. "It Began as a Mistake" - from "Post Office" by Charles Bukowski.
Such a simple line. Five words. Again, what is "It" and why was it a "Mistake". The entire novel can almost be described in that first line and yet we MUST continue in order to uncover the questions.
And again with the "it". The reader subconsciously might think: "well, I at least have to continue until I find out what it is and why it was a mistake?"
Many of these first sentences start with the hint of mystery (i.e. fill in the blanks of "it", "usual way", "mistake", even "more or less".
And there's also the hint of something gone wrong. In this case "mistake" is explicit or Bunny being dead is explicit. But in general, we expect that "it" is the high point and it goes down from there.
9. "You are about to being reading Italo Calvino's new book, 'If on a Winter's Night a Traveler' - from "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler" by Italo Calvino
A) plays with structure. A book rarely refers to itself. The author is also referring to himself in the third person.
B) it addresses the reader directly in the second person. In the Kurt Vonnegut quote he also sort of addresses the reader by having to say, "All of this happened". But this one is more direct, "You". Puts you on guard. Is he looking at me right now?
C) because of playing with the structure there's some humor in this.
D) Is the narrator Italo Calvino? Or will the narrator constantly refer to the author.
E) There's a paradox here: did he write that line after writing the book or did he start the book that way. It's confusing but not so confusing you won't read on in order to satisfy your curiosity
10. "124 was spiteful" - from "Beloved" by Toni Morrison
To be honest, I haven't read this book. So my notes here are about what I gather from the book just by reading this first line.
A) Why is someone named "124"? Is this even a person? Gives an unemotional feeling. Maybe a robot in science fiction and yet the title is so emotional ("Beloved")
B) BUT...not so unemotional. We know in three words that "124" was "spiteful". Which implies action
Why not angry? Why specifically is 124 filled with "spite". Spite implies some action: like 124 wants to hurt someone. Spite implies you want someone to feel the pain you feel. As opposed to just feeling angry. Conveyed in just three words.
11. The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel" - from "Neuromancer" by William Gibson.
A bad novel might start "the sky above the port was the deepest of blues".
Which is too obvious. Instead, "the color of television". What is the color of television? You have to think about it a second before realizing there really isn't a color. It's more a feeling somehow. A feeling of business.
So then you get that slight paradox again in just one line: "the sky above the port" almost feels Hemingway-esque - vast blueness, a port where for millennia ships move slowly in and out and life goes on.
What is the color of television? The color of a TV depends on the signal being sent. But the signal is "tuned to a dead channel" - why is it dead? The static we see on an old TV is the signal from the "Big Bang".
"sky" and "port" are words we almost expect to see in a first line. But "television" "dead" "channel" "static" mixes us up. A dead channel might refer to a story that has run its course and now we are in the aftermath.
12. "Vaughn died yesterday, in his last car crash" - from "Crash" by JG Ballard.
"his last car crash". Why "last"? Does he get into a lot of crashes? Then why was this one different?
Why the lack of emotion? Why the directness. The reader is subconsciously caught off guard because more emotion and less directness is expected when someone dies. Imagine if someone you loved died yesterday - would you write the line like that?
- the first sentence contains the seeds of the entire novel (or...in our cases, a blog post).
- the structure (simple vs complex, confusing vs direct), contains the emotions
- twisted. A mystery to unravel so you read further
- unique. Each of those lines are unique in all literature.
- there's blood in each line. Some vulnerability that is going to unravel.