The Beauty of First Lines

Has it happened to you? That moment when you open a book, let your eyes rest on the first page, and suddenly, you’re transported. Or shocked. Or laughing. Because the very first line has done exactly what the author hoped. It grabbed you, pulling you into the story as inexorably as a Pacific ocean riptide will carry you out to sea. And, depending on the kind of book, it can be equally terrifying. Or unbearably sweet. Or so startling in its accuracy that you catch your breath.

This, friends, is why we labor so over those first lines. Fiction, nonfiction, it doesn’t matter. We want those first words on the page to SPEAK to the reader. So here, from both fiction and nonfiction, are some first lines that have accomplished that for me. Anyone recognize any of them?

“This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.”

“It’s Nathan’s fault I became God.”

“I once listened to an Indian on television say that God was in the wind and the water, and I wondered at how beautiful that was because it meant you could swim in Him or have Him brush your face in a breeze.”

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

“I’m going to cut him open.”

I’ll give you the answers next week. But for now, what are some of the first lines that have been effective for you? Give us the line and the book/author.


19 Responses to The Beauty of First Lines

  1. Joan Campbell April 27, 2016 at 5:11 am #

    Pyotr Luzhkov was about to be killed, and for that he was grateful. (The Defector, Daniel Silva – the master of great first lines)

  2. Faith McDonald April 27, 2016 at 5:12 am #

    The first line of Shogun by James Clavell really hooked me: The gale tore at him and he felt its bite deep within and he knew if they did not make landfall within three days they would all be dead.

    I admired how that line included external and internal conflict and great risk.

    Turns out, I didn’t like the book that well…

  3. April Kidwell April 27, 2016 at 5:27 am #

    There is only one line you listed that I know in an instant.

    As a literature teacher, I will often read the first lines or pages of a story. Even after having read most of these stories year after year, there are times that I reread the words and instead of stopping after a paragraph or page to discuss the material I keep reading, lost in the story.

    Some of my favorites are:

    “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”


    “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

    “It is a truth universally acknowledged…”

    “The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon.”

    “Less than an hour before dawn I heard the first scream.” Tara’s Song Barbara Ferry Johnson

    And then there is this one (which leads to one of the most powerful opening scenes I’ve ever read) from LaVyrle Spencer’s Then Came Heaven:
    “Cyril Case was making the daily run from St. Cloud to Cass Lake, sitting up high on his box seat in engine number two-eighty-two.”

    • Faith McDonald April 27, 2016 at 6:30 am #

      Mockingbird, Tom Sawyer, Tale of Two cities, don’t know, Barabara Kingsolver’s book about the lagoon?

      • April Kidwell April 27, 2016 at 4:42 pm #

        Ah! I forgot to list the books and authors. Yes, the first three are correct, the fourth Karen included in her list, so I will leave that for her to reveal next week. The fifth one is the first line of Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

  4. Jennifer Dyer April 27, 2016 at 5:40 am #

    Love first lines. ?
    My fav is: “Even before he was electrocuted Jasen was having a rotten day.” Rick Riordan from book 2 of Heroes of Olympus series. (Can’t remember the title right now.)

  5. Mary April 27, 2016 at 6:27 am #

    It’s actually the first paragraph, from Dick Francis’ “Straight,” but the last line of that first paragraph is the one that sticks in my head, and was the very first thought when you asked about favorite first lines.

    “I inherited my brother’s life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses, and his mistress. I inherited my brother’s life, and it nearly killed me.”

  6. Varina Denman April 27, 2016 at 6:38 am #

    There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. – The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis

  7. Brennan McPherson April 27, 2016 at 6:39 am #

    Karen–interesting that all your choices (except for one) are obviously in the First Person. Each line, in a way, says, “I’m a person, and this is the beginning of who I am.” Maybe readers really don’t care so much about how beautiful our words are, or how clever our opening line is. Maybe readers are mainly just interested in getting to know an intriguing PERSON, and everything else is secondary.

  8. Heather April 27, 2016 at 6:43 am #

    “The palace shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened. ” Robert Jordan, “The Eye of the World”

  9. Michael Emmanuel April 27, 2016 at 6:46 am #

    Favorites, in no particular order:
    “She ran.” (Frank Peretti – The Oath)
    “There’s nothing new under the sun, Renee.” (Ted Dekker – The Priest’s Graveyard)
    “Things started to fall apart at home when…” (Chimamanda Adichie – Purple Hibiscus)
    “There were too many funerals.” (Karen Kingsbury – One Tuesday Morning.)
    “Sally.” (Stephen King – The Stand)
    “In the waning hours of a presidency that was destined…” (John Grisham – The Broker)
    “Alex Stanford was just like Mama said.” (Francine Rivers – Redeeming Love)
    “The office had no windows.” (Ted Dekker – THR3E)
    “The priest was dead, transiently catatonic, slugged with fatigue.” (Anonymous)
    Think I’ve written enough…

  10. Bill Hendricks April 27, 2016 at 7:42 am #

    “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

  11. Evelyn Wagoner April 27, 2016 at 7:53 am #

    “I see the children burning.” Wailing Tree (Karen McSpadden) (I’m hoping this novel will be published soon!)

  12. Norma Brumbaugh April 27, 2016 at 9:18 am #

    “Call me Ishmael” Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, is a fav.

    Best/Worst of Times (A Tale of Two Cities) stays with me. It crosses my mind when I’m going through a stretching experience.

  13. Sheri Dean Parmelee April 27, 2016 at 11:03 am #

    Karen, you must have read my mind- I was just working on the first lines of my book this morning. The clincher is trying to figure out how to get men, who I understand only read two books a year, to read something that will be very helpful to them……the females in my audience will automatically know that!
    P.S. I am looking forward to next week’s answers……..

  14. Linda April 27, 2016 at 11:18 am #

    There is a moth in a cocoon outside the window(Good Hope Road -Lisa Wingate). In Beulah, Iowa. Widow women all over town garden in the clothes of their deceased husbands(Dwelling Places, Vinita Hampton Wright) The Morgan Hill Cemetery was right behind the church, so you can imagine how convenient funerals were at the time. (The Angels of Morgan Hill, Donna Van Liere). The hill people and the Mexicans arrived on the same day, (A Painted House, John Grisham). Beyond the window of my father’s shop, midwinter light skims the snow, ( Light on Snow, Anita Shreve). From my first breath in this world, all I wanted was a good set of lungs and the air to fill them with-given circumstances, you might presume, for an American baby of the twentieth century (Peace Like a River, Leif Enger)
    One more and this first sentence begged me to read on … Ava met him at a box lunch auction outside Gadsen Alabama, when she was barely fifteen, when a skinny boy in freshly washed overalls stepped from the crowd of bidders, pointed to her and said “I got one dollar by God.” (Ava’s Man, Rick Bragg)

  15. Robin Patchen April 27, 2016 at 5:06 pm #

    I read this one last week:

    “It was all because of the Berlin Wall.” –first line of The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty. (By the way, the story takes place in Australia in current day, so it’s an intriguing first line.)

  16. Sarah Chafins April 28, 2016 at 7:56 am #

    Ah, the first one you listed is the first line of my favorite fiction book in all the world. Although, I’ve never read the original version by S. Morgenstern (wink).

  17. Marie Wells Coutu May 15, 2016 at 1:50 pm #

    Do dead people wear shoes? In the casket, I mean. Seems a waste. –Cynthia Ruchti, They Almost Always Come Home

Get New Posts by Email

Get New Posts by Email

Each article is packed with helpful info and encouragement for writers. You can unsubscribe at any time with one click. 

You have Successfully Subscribed!