The first line of your story can determine, within seconds, if a reader wants to explore what you have to offer. If it’s intriguing, it can set the hook for the beginning of the book. Finding readership is a lot like fishing. You have to bait your hook with something tasty or the readers will likely swim right by.
Here are some great examples of books with famous first lines.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” ⸺ George Orwell, “1984” (1949)
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anyone else, there pages must show.” ⸺ Charles Dickens, “David Copperfield (1850)
“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice of the other end asking for someone he was not.” ⸺ Paul Auster, “City of Glass” (1985)
“They shoot the white girl first. ⸺ Toni Morrison, “Paradise” (1998)
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” ⸺ Edith Wharton, “Ethan Frome (1911)
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August 1974. ⸺ Jeffrey Eugenides, “Middlesex” (2002)
“What if this young woman, who writes such bad poems, in competition with her husband, whose poems are equally bad, should stretch her remarkably long and well-made legs out before you, so that her skirt slips up to the tops of her stockings? ⸺ Gilbert Sorrentino, “Imaginative Qualities for Actual Things.” (1971)
“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” (1859)
“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” ⸺ J. K Rowling, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (1997)
Of the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women. ⸺ Charles Johnson, “Middle Passage” (1990)
“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” ⸺ Raphael Sabatini, “Scaramouche” (1921)
All these first lines have one thing in common. They entice the reader to read the second line. If your book’s first line is unremarkable the likelihood of someone reading it is greatly diminished. Think about this when you set down to start a new book or even a short story. Spending time to create a memorable first line can be a truly worthwhile endeavor.
Something I like to do when I an doodling around, not ready to write for want of sleep or ambition, is to create first lines of stories I may someday write. I read one of those stories that came out of this exercise at one of our meetings. The line was: “John Price has a bullet in his heart.” This story began as a first line exercise and eventually turned into a novella that I will soon self publish.
I hear so many writers say they don’t know what to write or can’t come up with a good story idea. Creating first lines can give your creative story farm some much needed fertilizer from which to grow new and interesting tales.