First Lines


Game time!

There’s a game some book readers play: I heard about it many years ago, and have been playing it ever since. It’s called First Lines (or at least I call it that), and it’s pretty simple:

Find a first sentence of a book that is not only a great first sentence, but that neatly and beautifully sums up the essence of the entire rest of the book.

The classic example, of course, is possibly the best- loved first sentence in all of English literature. And it is from what’s probably my favorite book. So of course I have to include it:

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

But I also have a strong fondness for this one, which both immediately sucks you into reading the rest of the story and sums up the essence of that story:

Fear and loathing in las vegas“We were somewhere outside Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

And I have to give a shout-out to this one — hey, credit where credit is due:

Bible“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

Hey, it’s nicely written. And you have to admit — it does sum up the rest of the book.

So now it’s your turn. What are your First Line favorites? And why?

Comments

  1. says

    “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
    First book in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. As for why? I couldn’t say. But I think those who have read and enjoyed the series will understand.

  2. says

    Let’s see if I can get in two classics before anyone else:
    “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” – George Orwell, 1984
    “The sky was the color of television tuned to a dead channel” – William Gibson, Neuromancer
    Less of a classic, but:
    “He awoke, and remembered dying” – Ken McLeod, The Stone Canal

  3. Claire B says

    Okay, technically two lines, but:
    “What you looking at me for?
    I didn’t come to stay.”
    First two lines of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. And the beautiful part is that it’s also the last two lines of A Song Flung Up to Heaven, the final part of Maya Angelou’s autobiography cycle. And by the time you’ve read it for the second time, you can finally see how it does, in an oblique way, sum up the entire rest of the book.
    And how about:
    “The Tao that can be spoken
    Is not the Eternal Tao”.
    Or:
    “In the name of Allah, the All-Gracious, the All-Merciful.”
    In fact, religious texts in general seem to be pretty good at coming up with first lines that basically act like those tag-lines you get on cinema posters: pulling the punters in by giving them a quick taste of what all this is going to be about.
    Anyway. How about Three Men in a Boat?
    “There were four of us: George, and William Samuel Harris, and myself, and Montmorency.”
    That’s pretty apposite, considering that the rest of the book is about the three (okay, four counting the dog) of them bickering and anecdoting their way along the Thames.
    Oh, oh, I know! The Secret History! Actually, The Secret History has a double-whammy. The Prologue begins like this:
    “The snow in the mountains was melting, and Bunny had been dead for several weeks, before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”
    That’s a great one-sentence summary of the plot, besides the fact that its measured cadences crack open the door to the dark, slow world the book ushers you into.
    Then the actual first chapter starts:
    “Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw’, that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside of literature?”
    Richard, of course, emotional solipsist that he is, applies this question to himself in the next couple of sentences. But in a way that’s the question that is most relevant to the emotional lives of every major figure in the book. Pretty nearly everyone has a fatal flaw of some kind. Literally fatal, in that it leads to a death. More than one death, in fact.
    Okay, enough of me going on.

  4. Alex the Fish says

    I don’t know about favorite, but I liked:
    “In Berlin, the prevailing winds are from the west.”
    from The Wall-Jumper by Peter Schneider.

  5. Alex the Fish says

    Also:
    “Looking back from this my seventieth year, it seems to me that every card in my working life has been dealt me in such a manner that I had but to play it as it came.”
    from Something of Myself by Rudyard Kipling.

  6. says

    one of the true classics: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
    “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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

  7. Nurse Ingrid says

    I’m going to have to go with the opening sentence of “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” which, come to think of it, makes a nice counterpoint to Genesis.
    “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy, lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”
    Talk about a perspective shift! That book rocked my world when I was about fourteen. Maybe humans weren’t the center of the Universe after all.
    Douglas, we lost you way too soon.
    (And no, I didn’t copy and paste that. That was from memory, baby. Shall I continue? You know I can.)

  8. Bachalon says

    “To define terms from the outset, this will not be a novel so much as a set of notes toward one.”
    Barry N. Malzberg’s overlooked classic, “Galaxies”. If I had to choose a book as a single favorite, this would be the one.
    After a few minutes of browsing, I’ve managed to locate another one:
    “Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tatars does continue listening to young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his.”
    Italo Calvino, “Invisible Cities”
    If it was first paragraphs, then we’d be talking. A lot of the leads that I like are powerful in that fuller form.

  9. says

    One of my favouorites is from Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Choke’ –
    “If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.”
    And another from Chuck for good measure. From ‘Fight Club’ –
    “Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.”

  10. says

    Mathyoo is reminding me of a silly joke we used to have in college.
    “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was BOTH!”
    I guess you had to be there. And be stoned.

  11. says

    “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
    Would be one line if Humbert Humbert (and Nabokov) wasn’t so fond of breaking sentences to bits.
    And to represent a little MZD (from Haley’s side of Only Revolutions):
    “Samsara! Samarra!
    Grand!
    I can walk away
    from anything.
    Everyone loves
    the Dream but I kill it.”

  12. Indigo says

    “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” ~Anna Karenina
    “‘There are dragons in the twins’ vegetable garden.'” ~A Wind in the Door
    “Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of the view of the kitchen.” ~The Golden Compass
    “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” ~The Hobbit
    “My suffering left me sad and gloomy. ~Life of Pi
    “We were at rest five miles behind the front.” ~All Quiet on the Western Front
    “All this happened, more or less.” ~Slaugherhouse Five

  13. says

    “No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. “
    — H.G. Wells “The War of the Worlds” 1897
    This is one of my favorite openings. A bit of a run-on sentence but really setting the mood for what is to come.
    Another opening, for a book I haven’t read yet, is from Max Shulman’s “Sleep Till Noon” 1950:
    “Blam Blam Blam Blam! Four shots ripped into my groin and I was off on the greatest adventure of my life.”
    Now that’s an opening.

  14. Ramel says

    ‘DESCRIBE, USING DIAGRAMS WHERE APPROPRIATE, THE EXACT CIRCUMSTANCES LEADING TO YOUR DEATH.’
    The start of Red Dwarf, by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. Meh, some one beat me to the Hitch Hikers Guide.

  15. says

    “He woke, and remembered dying.” -Ken MacLeod’s Stone Canal, a great cyberpunkish novel that’s set from 1975 to the 2190s. It’s one of my favourite all time novels and the opening line catches the eye and invites you to read more, while nicely summing up the entire book.
    “There is a spectre haunting europe–the spectre of Communism.” It’s not a theory I ascribe too, but it’s definitely a good opener.
    These two aren’t necessarily first lines, but they are very good and I think they deserve honourable mention: “There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. Some kind of high powered mutant never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.” -Hunter S. Thompson and “All I would ask of a god is unconditional love and close air support.” -Ken MacLeod

  16. says

    “If you really wanted to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhoood 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. Classic Holden Caulfield.
    “Who is John Galt?” – Atlas Shrugged

  17. Nurse Ingrid says

    Indigo, I totally agree about the opening sentence of A Wind in the Door, in some ways a better book than A Wrinkle in Time.
    Come to think of it, do you remember the opening sentence of A Wrinkle in Time?
    “It was a dark and stormy night.”
    I am totally serious.

  18. Chris says

    Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.
    The Tin Drum
    And also, this sentence, which is not the first but follows an introductory paragraph:
    The punishment begins.
    Berlin Alexanderplatz

  19. David Harmon says

    In a distant and secondhand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly, the curling star-mists waver and part…
    If you continue to the first proper full stop, you meet Great A’Tuin, but that gets a bit clunkier. This of course is from Terry Pratchett’s The Color Of Magic, the beginning of the Discworld.
    “It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me.” — Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes In Amber

  20. Jon Berger says

    “Chick with a harp.” From Gael Baudino’s “Gossamer Axe,” one of my favorite pieces of urban fantasy written by a morris dancer. Possibly not the best at letting you know how the book is going to go, since it’s feminist to the point of being a tad heavy-handed about it, but it gets your attention.
    You guys do know about the Bulwer-Lytton contest, right? http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/

  21. says

    “A screaming comes across the sky.”
    — Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
    “Are you a child of DNA?”
    — Greg Egan, Incandescence
    “Up a goddamn mountain: So that ignorant, thick-lipped, evil whorehopping editor phones me up and says, ‘Does the word contract mean anything to you, Jerusalem?'”
    — Warren Ellis, Transmetropolitan

  22. says

    Best first line, from The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis:
    “It was a dull autumn day, and Jill Pole was crying behind the gym.”
    Notice how it gives you the When, Who, What and Where, all in one short sentence.
    The second line is: “She was crying because They had been teasing her.” Now we get the Why, and build sympathy for the protagonist at the same time. Very neat.

  23. Laura Upstairs says

    “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
    Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude.
    I love what he does with time in that sentence. A very good introduction to the book.

  24. says

    Does it have to be a book? There was a blog entry once which opened with:
    On the way home today, while crossing the Fuller-Warren bridge, someone threw a kitten out of their window.

  25. says

    The spring rains had softened the ground, so Dunk had no trouble digging the grave.
    “The Hedge Knight” by George R.R. Martin

  26. says

    Oh, there’s a why there… I don’t know. It’s clear. It lets you know what the book is about, and how you are going to feel about that. And you read it anyway.
    Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf… the first official line is “The day had gone by just as days go by.”, which wraps you in the mood of the book and sets you on your way.

  27. Hayley says

    I like sentences 3 and 4 of Moby Dick. It makes me want to take to the sea.
    “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.”

  28. will willis says

    “It was love at first sight.
    The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.”
    -Joseph Heller, Catch-22
    The first time I tried to read this book, I was in 5th grade. I had grabbed it from my father’s shelf because I had heard the expression ‘catch-22′ somewhere, and figured I would try the book. I was completely out of my league. I was a good reader for my age, but catch-22 was not the Hardy Boys. I had it with me in school, though, and my teacher saw it. She went apeshit, the principal went apeshit, my parents were called (“NOT an appropriate book for my age group!” they were told.) I thus became determined to read it, and I did. (With my father’s blessing … the only book my father ever hid from me when I was a kid was by Alex Comfort, I found that in the basement when I was 13) I loved the book. It was full of dirty words, authority questioning, and pissed off my teacher … what’s not to love when you’re 10?
    p.s. to this day it is my favorite book, reread annually at the minimum

  29. Nurse Ingrid says

    I am so glad that Jon mentioned Bulwer-Lytton, because this discussion made me think of it too.
    My favorite entry:
    “I was a very very very very very sensitive child.”

  30. says

    Lots of the ones that people have already mentioned, plus Tristram Shandy:
    I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me…
    and I don’t think he pauses for breath for the next 600 pages.

  31. says

    @Caio Camargo: particularly retro when you consider that future generations reading that line will imagine a bright, clear blue sky…
    @Steven Alleyn: beat you to it on The Stone Canal
    @Laura Upstairs: best entrant so far for my money, that line does so much work in so few words. I got part-way through that book and then misplaced my copy…

  32. A. Willow says

    The Hobbit…yes!
    Dickens is always good for a first line,I find:
    Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.
    Oliver Twist.
    Other great first-line writers are,I agree,Terry Pratchett,Douglas Adams and C.S.Lewis.
    I wish I were near my book collection,I’m sure I could find more.

  33. Ken Miller says

    “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.” — William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
    “I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.” — Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest

  34. Beruthiel says

    Delurking. (Hi!)
    “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” — The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, CS Lewis
    “It is so appropriate to colour hope yellow, like that sun we seldom saw.” — Flowers in the Attic, VC Andrews
    “Jack Torrence thought: Officious little prick.” — The Shining, Stephen King
    “The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.” — It, Stephen King
    “With the woman on his mind and a deep uneasiness in his heart, Spencer Grant drove through the glistening night, searching for the red door.” — Dark Rivers of the Heart, Dean Koontz

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