I love working on the first line of a story, especially a novel. The first sentence sets the tone for the whole book. It’s the first impression and if it’s off, it can sour the rest of the book for the reader. The first sentence will always be more memorable than the 100th sentence, so it has to be better.
So, what’s important to say in the first sentence? Many writers introduce their characters, since they are central to the story. Some introduce the landscape. A commonly held no-no is to start with the weather because usually the weather is trivial. One of my novel’s first lines is: “The air in the room felt close, like a cave, and the darkness smelled like baby powder and diaper rash cream.” There, I was trying to introduce the setting, but also set the mood and also give foreshadowing for the story to come, since it’s about babies and darkness. Another, where I introduce the character right away is: “Jonah liked being a hunter.” That also is trying to give a setting for the whole story, since the whole story in one way or another, is about hunting.
Here are some books that I have in my house and their first lines:
“The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring cleaning his little home.” (The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame). This introduces the character and gives a tone for the rest of the book. It’s a domestic story about domestic problems, and also about animals.
“A mile above Oz, the Witch balanced on the wind’s forward edge, as if she were a green fleck of the land itself, flung up and sent wheeling away by the turbulent air.” (Wicked, by Gregory Maguire). Another character introduction. This is actually in the prologue of the story, I think. It introduces the Witch as solitary and disconnected with the rest of the world, a problem she has through the whole story.
“Marley was dead: to begin with.” (A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens). Dickens was wonderful at first lines. This just grabs you and throws you into the story.
“Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house.” (Coraline, by Neil Gaiman). This first sentence introduces the character and also shows right away what is important in the story by saying “the door” instead of “a door” as if we should already know about it.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen). I think this is another of those classic first lines that lays out the whole book in a single sentence.
And then, the first line that I read and just laughed and laughed. Good or bad is for you to decide, but it definitely grabs you: “It was a long day, the day Axis tried to kill Azhure, then married her.” (Starman, by Sara Douglass).
Do you have any favorite first lines from novels? What are some of your own? Let me know. 🙂