first lines

The first lines of a novel or short story are an invitation written in shorthand. Here’s an example:

I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere nor a chair misplaced. We are alone here and we are dead.

Tropic of Cancer | Henry Miller

The first few lines of a novel have to draw the reader in and hold her captive, which makes those sentences the hardest and most important sentences to write. Browsing in a bookstore I might read the first lines or first paragraphs of twenty novels in a half hour. Twenty different authors + twenty opening lines = days and days of work, but it only takes me minutes to make decisions on whether or not I will read the rest of the book. I’m looking for evidence that I’m in the hands of a real storyteller. Somebody with a voice, and vision.

I’ve said before that I’m not crazy about first person narratives, but these days it seems like I can pick up a dozen novels one after the other and they are all in first person. I keep wondering when this fashion will pass. I am rarely so struck by a first person narrative that I’ll buy the novel, but there are exceptions. Tropic of Cancer is such an exception. I actually remember reading this opening line many years ago, because it made such an impression on me; it was exotic (Villa Borghese), with strong imagery, and there is that shock of listening to a dead man tell a story.

Here’s an example of an opening done with dialog which works (for me) like magic. From Dickens’ Hard Times:

NOW, what I want is, Facts.

In this case it’s the comma and then the capitalization of Facts that makes me sit up and pay attention. People who talking in capital letters are bound to be interesting. Something very different:

In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses — and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread-lace, had their toy spinning-wheels of polished oak — there might be seen in districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race.

Silas Mariner | George Elliot

To start with this sounds like a traditional story in a traditional setting, saved from the curse of the ordinary by use of interesting details (thread-lace, polished oak). It’s the last part of the sentence, the juxtaposition of the expected (brawny country-folk) with the unsettling (remnants of a disinherited race) that pulls me in.

Another example:

The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry.

I’m wondering if anybody recognizes this? I’ll spill the beans if nobody wants to speak up. I’m also wondering why the sentence has always stuck in my head. The only explanation I’ve got is the use of the word seemed. With that one word, a world of possibilities opens up before us, and the story might take us to any of them.

And for something completely different, sometimes pure shock value works. Here’s an example:

Three men at McAlester State Peniteniary had larger penises than Lamar Pye, but all were black and therefore, by Lamar’s own figureing, hardly human at all. His was the largest penis ever seen on a white man in that prison or any of the others in which Lamar had spent so much of his adult life. It was a monster, a snake, a ropey, veiny thing that hardly looked at all like what it was but rather like some form of rubber tubing.

Dirty White Boys | Stephen Hunter

I like Stephen Hunter’s books about Earl and Bob Lee Swagger. I had read a few of them before I picked up Dirty White Boys. Maybe I was taken in by his opening because I already liked and trusted the author — I knew enough to give Hunter a chance, and my reaction was tempered by that. Thus a warning: an opening like this, calculated to shock on multiple levels (sexual imagery, racism, crime) might backfire if you don’t have the skill to pull it off. Especially if you aren’t Stephen Hunter.

In summary, first sentences are really hard. Wickedly hard, for me at least. But once that first sentence is solid on the page… the rest of the damn novel still has to be written.

7 Replies to “first lines”

  1. The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry.

    Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy

    IMO one of the saddest stories ever written. Faves are Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Absolute fave is On the Western Circuit.

  2. give that woman a kewpie doll.

    I love all Hardy’s novels, but I’d have to put Far From the Madding Crowd near the top of the list, along with Casterbridge and Tess.

  3. I don’t have a kewpie doll – but it would be kind of nice. Love all of Hardy’s novels as well and just forgot to put Madding Crowd in my list. Still think Jude the Obscure is just sooooooooo sad!

  4. I usually judge a book by it’s first paragraph rather than it’s opening sentence – a semantic difference to be sure, but I find that so often, one sentence just isn’t enough. The first ‘first sentence’ I’ve ever read that’s convinced me to buy the book is Jessica Adam’s “I’m a Believer”: ‘For the first few days after Catherine’s death, I find myself doing all the wrong things – though I’m not exactly sure what the right things are.’

  5. Huh, I’m the other way around- I find it harder to get interested in most third person stories because it feels so removed and lacking in voice compared to first. Go figure.

  6. You must have heard that piece on NPR with author Nancy Pearl the other day. The NPR website had even more great first lines. That book she wrote “Book Lust” is great. She has all kinds of funny catagories from which to choose good books. She unfortunately makes one glaring omission.

    Cynthia in Florida

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