In a recent article with The Atlantic, Stephen King describes the first line of a book as the reader’s invitation to begin the story.
“…a really good first line can do so much to establish that crucial sense of voice—it’s the first thing that acquaints you, that makes you eager, that starts to enlist you for the long haul. So there’s incredible power in it, when you say, come in here. You want to know about this. And someone begins to listen.”
My friend and writing mentor Pat Carr says the first sentence is a promise to the reader— a promise of what’s to come. The first sentence sets the story’s mood and tone.
What pressure! That first sentence is often a stumbling block to the second sentence.
I’ve been studying first sentences to test this theory. Here are the openings lines to a few of my favorite books… (in no particular order)
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. (A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens)
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (1984, George Orwell)
When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. (The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett)
It was a pleasure to burn. (Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury)
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is when 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. (Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger)
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. (The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway)
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, Jane Austin)
All children, except one, grow up. (Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie)
The terror that would not end for another twenty-eight years, if it ever did, began so far as I can know or tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain. (It, Stephen King)
When Augustus came on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake—not a very big one. (Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry)
He understood what they were thinking and saying: Old man that he is, what’s to become of him? (To Dance With the White Dog, Terry Kay)
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug. (Little Women, Louisa May Alcott)
I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. (The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini)
At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. (Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier)
At sundown, when they led him to the chair, Nail Chism began to understand the meaning of the name of his hometown, Stay More. (The Choiring of the Trees, Donald Harington)
What’s your favorite first book line?
Grace Grits and Gardening
Farm. Food. Garden. Life.
P.S. The opening line to wildly popular Fifty Shades…
I scowl at frustration at myself in the mirror. (Fifty Shades of Grey, E. L. James)