Saturday, May 12, 2007

First lines

It's crazy I can't believe that I'm posting yet again. Maybe I'm getting into a good habit. Another good habit I need to get into is starting my novel and working on it everyday. I'm not sure how well that's going to work out.
I've been seriously struggling about coming up with a first line. I think it is one of, if not the most, crucial lines in the whole story. It has to grab the reader's attention, set the mood for the whole story and it has to be perfect in every way. I'm stressing out.
I know I could just settle on something and then work on it later but I think that sets a bad path for me. If I settle on this line then I'll settle on every line and then where do I draw the line. It just needs to be the best sentence I've ever written and no less.

In hopes to work it out I decided to go through some of the books I own and study some of the first lines.

"When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow."
- 'To Kill A Mocking Bird' by Harper Lee

"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

"She hurries from the house, wearing a coat too heavy for the weather."
- 'The Hours' by Michael Cunningham

"In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since."
-'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald

"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' by Charles Dickens

"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."
-'The Catcher in the Rye' by J.D. Salinger

Of course, now that I've typed all those out, I just found the American Book Reviews top 100 first lines . I think the only one on my list not on theirs is from the Hours which is actually my favorite. It says a lot about what's going on. (She's left a house. She's in a hurry and it must be somewhat warm out.) It makes me wonder why she's leaving in such a hurry, where she's going and why she's wearing such a heavy coat. The reason I love it the most is because it's simple. So I guess that's what I should be trying to bring to my book.

"Three more months and this hell would be over."


jenni said...

I agree that a first line is important, but there are an awful lot of famous authors that have really sucky first lines!

My personal favorite? John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men: "A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green." Blah blah blah, setting, setting, setting. Two pages later, the story actually starts. It is killer if you are trying to interest 30 tenth graders in the book!

Ashley said...

I agree when I was looking through the top 100 I wasn't impressed. Even a few of the ones I posted don't seem all that great.

Tom Occhipinti said...

Sorry for the deletion of my original post, but I needed to edit my comment for clarity:
Now here's a topic that interests me. I'm not sure why, but I've always been drawn to the first line of a novel. Where novel hooks are concerned, the first few pages are important, yes -- as is the overall premise of the book. But oddly, I'm particularly interested in the first line.

Actually, I produce and record a creative writing podcast (online audio show) at and will soon be doing an episode on the first lines of novels.

In addition, I teach writing and literature, and every year I present several dozen first-lines to my students for discussion.

I won't copy and paste them here as there are too many. But I put them on a page on my website, if you're curious.

Also, if you're interested in the creative writing process, I'd like to know your thoughts on the podcast itself. I didn't mean for this post to be a plug for the show. But I came across this discussion and felt like chiming in.

Tom Occhipinti
-- Creative Writing Podcast