A friend sent me a link to a list of the 100 top first sentences in a novel (americanbookreview.org/100BestLines.asp), and I have to tell you, I wasn’t particularly impressed. Some were great, of course, but some just seemed to be written expressly for lists like this. And some I swear were only on the list because of some geriatric honorific. That whole “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” thing? I think that went on way too long.
So what makes a great first sentence? It has to grab you by the throat and force you to keep reading. Period.
If it doesn’t intrigue you in some way, make you think, “Well, I’ll read a little bit more. I’d like to know how his grandmother happened to explode. Once I know that, I can quit if I want to,” then the first line has failed. Hopefully by the time you know what grandma exploding means, you’re hooked and will keep reading. (“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” —Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road)
A great first line can actually be very confusing, as long as it makes the reader go “hmmm” and ponder what that means and think about it and worry it over in his mind and come to possible conclusions. For example, I instantly started thinking about scenarios in which the following could be true: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” (Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex)
I’m editing a book right now for Musa by Sam Kepfield called Magic Man, Gold Dust Woman, and the Dream Machine (I also edited his short story Droids Don’t Cry, also a Musa book). He has a great first line: “I awake and know that I am dead.” I definitely wanted to know what that meant!
Sometimes a good first line makes you laugh, makes you feel lighthearted, and that makes you want to read on: “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” (James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss) Never sneeze at ambiance — if your first sentence can sell the zeitgeist of the whole book, you’ve got a winner.
The first line is also a great place to establish voice. “’What’s it going to be then, eh?’ There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry.” (Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess) When you read that, you immediately get this other language, this dialect you don’t know. Just figuring out what he’s saying is intriguing enough, but the cussing, the callousness of the language, and the low-class nicknames let you know unusual things will be happening, and they might not be pleasant. It sets the mood for the whole story.
I tried to do all of this in the first line of my own book: “The first time I shifted was completely unintentional. And I had no idea what was happening.” I liked it because it feels like it starts in the middle of a conversation, and it establishes the point of view as first-person. I tried to make the narrator sound young, but that probably didn’t happen as well as it could have — I wish I could go back and work on that, maybe. But hopefully it has the intriguing factor: What the heck is shifting? How can you do something unintentionally and without knowing what you’re doing?
Maybe going from my own little story to Charles Dickens is a little brazen, and I certainly don’t compare myself to the great writers, but when I’m reading a first line of a book, what doesn’t impress me much is these long, rambling sentences that go on and on without punctuation, or with just a lot of pretentiousness, or with a lot of backstory about the narrator’s character that I’d rather find out gradually from his actions. I’ll be honest — I skim those a lot. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)
Am I crazy, or does that just drag on and on? And does it mean anything? Do you say, “Gosh, age of wisdom, age of foolishness, epochs of belief and incredulity…I know what this means. I know exactly where this is going.” I know this is an old book, and I know you don’t want to give away the store with the first line, but I’d like to know what the story is kind of about, because there are about thirty books on that table at Barnes and Noble, and I might just shrug, close the book, and grab another. If you want to keep me from grabbing another book, you’d better grab me first.