First Lines Are Kinda Important

“It was a cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

That arresting line begins one of the most famous novels of the twentieth century: George Orwell’s 1984.

The first sentence of any article or book is kinda important, even if it’s borrowed, like the first line of this blog post. Your first sentence should be well-written and striking, intriguing, promising, and/or inviting. It should draw in the reader like a carnival barker’s pitch or a Buzzfeed headline.

Some of the most famous lines in literature are opening sentences, such as “Call me Ishmael” (Moby Dick) and “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” (A Tale of Two Cities).

To give you great examples and (one can hope) inspire your future first lines, below are eighteen opening lines. Can you identify the book and author? (Here’s a hint: All but two are from novels, and one is from an acclaimed children’s book).

  1. The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fog revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.
  1. Midway on this life’s journey I entered a dark wood.
  1. Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
  1. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
  1. 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.
  1. Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.
  1. On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.
  1. In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
  1. He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.
  1. I wake to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin.
  1. Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego.
  1. He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Steam and he had gone forty days now without taking a fish.
  1. He—for there could be no doubt about his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.
  1. By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree.
  1. Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty that seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.
  1. The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods.
  1. When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.
  1. “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

 

 

Answers: (1) Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage; (2) Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy; (3) Charles Dickens, David Copperfield; (4) Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice; (5) J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye; (6) William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury; (7) Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey; (8) F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby; (9) Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim;  (10) James Frey, A Million Little Pieces; (11) Jack London, The Call of the Wild; (12) Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea; (13) Virginia Woolf, Orlando; (14) Elizabeth Gilbert, The Last American Man; (15) George Eliot, Middlemarch; (16) Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt; (17) Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis; (18) E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web.

 

15 Responses to First Lines Are Kinda Important

  1. Avatar
    Roberta Sarver January 29, 2020 at 7:07 am #

    Wow. Have you read all these books at least once?

  2. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 29, 2020 at 7:22 am #

    “it was a dark and stormy night”
    may have brought dear Snoopy fame,
    but if that is the way you write,
    you may just want another game.
    The firt line is the first impression
    that you have a chance to make;
    don’t, thereby, invite rejection,
    readers to heels quickly take.
    Take this lesson into play
    from writing-desk to life,
    or wrong first words can scare away
    a winsome future wife,
    like the polyester seventies line,
    “Hey, baby, what’s your sign?”

    • Avatar
      Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 29, 2020 at 7:49 am #

      And what a first impresion to make, not capitalizing the first letter of the first line…unless one is channeling e.e. cumming.

      And mis-pelling ‘first’ in the fifth line…sheesh.

  3. Avatar
    Debby Kratovil January 29, 2020 at 8:04 am #

    In my high school English classes, we called this the “hook.” It’s what pulls us irresistibly into the rest of the story. I think one of the greatest hooks is, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth . . .” I have to keep reading to make sure this wasn’t the Big Bang theory on steroids!

    • Avatar
      Sharon K Connell January 29, 2020 at 10:39 am #

      How could you not include “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” I don’t think I have to mention the title. The line hooked me. “What’s a hobbit?” “In a hole?”

      Or, “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” From the first of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. Even without reading The Hobbit, I would have wondered about him being eleventy-one. And what on earth could happen to a man who’s already 111 year old? It sure got my attention.

      Then there’s the first line of “Peter Pan.” “All children, except one, grow up.”

      Yes, that first line is so important to get the reader hooked into your story and not want to put the book down.

      • Avatar
        Sharon K Connell January 29, 2020 at 10:41 am #

        Sorry, this was supposed to be a separate reply to the article. Don’t know what happened.

    • Avatar
      Sharon K Connell January 29, 2020 at 10:43 am #

      Exactly, Debby. God is, was, and always will be the Master Author.

  4. Avatar
    Judi Clarke January 29, 2020 at 9:45 am #

    Thanks for this insightful collection of first lines. It’s always helpful to see examples of the mastery we pursue. Thanks, Bob.

  5. Avatar
    Sharon K Connell January 29, 2020 at 10:41 am #

    How could you not include “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” I don’t think I have to mention the title. The line hooked me. “What’s a hobbit?” “In a hole?”

    Or, “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” From the first of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. Even without reading The Hobbit, I would have wondered about him being eleventy-one. And what on earth could happen to a man who’s already 111 year old? It sure got my attention.

    Then there’s the first line of “Peter Pan.” “All children, except one, grow up.”

    Yes, that first line is so important to get the reader hooked into your story and not want to put the book down.

  6. Avatar
    Paula Geister January 29, 2020 at 11:02 am #

    “When Augustus came out on the porch, the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake–not a very big one.” From the first western I ever read (I was about 50 at the time) “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry.

    Me: What in the world is a blue pig?

    Thanks, Bob. I saved this to share. Other books with amazing first lines become the stories I tend to remember. Especially if their first line is a short ‘grabber.’

  7. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee January 29, 2020 at 3:04 pm #

    Thanks for sharing your wealth of knowledge, Bob. Great blog posting, as always!

  8. Avatar
    Tiffany January 29, 2020 at 4:21 pm #

    Snoopy always begins with “It was a dark and stormy night…” Classic

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 02-06-2020 | The Author Chronicles - February 6, 2020

    […] support it all can be tough. Janice Hardy has 4 tips on plotting your novel, Bob Hostetler looks at compelling first lines, Jami Gold discusses bridging conflicts from the story beginning to the main conflict, and Colleen […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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!