I’ve heard it said that your first line should be your best. It should immediately capture your readers’ attentions, leaving them no choice but to continue forward.
With that little thought in mind, I thought it’d be interesting to take a quick look at the first lines of some well-known novels, and see how they measure up to this age-old advice. Do these famous first lines capture your attention?
Here we go:
“It was a pleasure to burn.” – Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
“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.” – JD Salinger, The Catcher In The Rye
“‘Tom!’” – Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
“On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.” – Richard Matheson, I Am Legend
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – George Orwell, 1984
A good first line asks a question.
Who were in the streets? A pleasure to burn what? The clocks were striking thirteen? Who the heck is Tom? Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged even asks the question for us: “Who is John Galt?”
A question pulls your readers in and makes them want to learn more. Or it sets the tone for the novel. Or it hints at its theme. A first line can do many things. At the very least it should do something.
At the very least it should be interesting.
In the first line of Catcher In The Rye, for example, what we see is not the set up of plot or setting or theme, but an introduction to the novel’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield. From just this first line, we know how he talks, we know his attitude, we even get a hint at his education (with a mention of David Copperfield).
This first line is interesting enough to make the reader want to listen a while longer and see what this guy is all about.
In storytelling, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. But the first line of your work is the first thing your reader will see when he or she is skipping through blogs or picking out novels at the book store. The authors of the first lines above knew this well.
You have to pull your readers in and not let go until they’ve finished. That first line, that first impression, may be the only chance you get.