Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The launching pad


Every novel starts somewhere. The author's job is to snag readers with that opening and keep them captivated.
Those first lines should be enticing or arresting. They should evoke the tone of the book, be compatible with the theme and storyline.
In reading through the 100 Best First Lines chosen by the editors of the American Book Review, I picked a few that got my attention. And, by the way, this still being Banned Books Week, a number of these amazing books also make those lists. Go figure.
I considered making this a quiz with the book title and author at the bottom of the post or in the comments section, but, hey, you probably don't want to work that hard. You can test yourself by trying to guess before reading the identity. I'm putting the lines in italics to set them off from the rest of the post and giving the number of where they fell in the 100 Best First Line list.
#3: A screaming comes across the sky.
My immediate reaction to "a screaming," rather than "a scream" and to it coming from "across" the sky is WHAT? WHY? So I'm hooked. The book is Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.
#8: It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
Thirteen. Need anything more? This one is 1984, George Orwell.
#15: The sun shone, having no alternative, on nothing new.
I love me some ennui. Gotta be Samuel Beckett, Murphy.
#16: 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.
Um, do I need to tell you? The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger.
#21: Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.
After this, of course, you may be lost. Ulysses, James Joyce.
#26: 124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom.
Spooky, much? Beloved, Toni Morrison.
#38: All this happened, more or less.
A little time shift, anyone? Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut.
#39: They shoot the white girl first.
Oh, boy. This is a loaded sentence that drags the reader in, despite misgivings. Yes, it's going to be tough and probably brilliant. Paradise, Toni Morrison.
#52: We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.
Bleak, but beautiful, somehow. I kept reading when I found it years ago. Tracks by Louise Erdrich.
#53: It was a pleasure to burn.
Many of you may know this iconic first line from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.
#65: You better not never tell nobody but God.
This is going to be intense, and I want to know why. The Color Purple, Alice Walker.
#96: Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimension of space.
A chewy thought that you know is going to be explored. Margaret Atwood, Cat's Eye.
#97: He--for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it--was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.
Say what? Gotta know more of this strange tale. Orlando, Virginia Woolf
Think your first line has got what it takes? You can share it in the comments section or just drool about the above. I'd love to hear any thoughts on this subject.

21 comments:

Davin Malasarn said...

Some great choices here! I love the Catcher line, the Slaughterhouse-Five line, and Paradise. They really function on multiple levels at the same time. I get paralyzed whenever I think of writing a first line. Nothing I create feels good enough. So, I've decided to not worry about it so much. As a result, I think my first lines are pretty tame...a reader has to give me a couple of pages if they want to like my work.

Tess said...

That one from The Color Purple still sends shivers down my spine. Maybe these lines are so fantastic because we know the amazing story that will follow...we've learned and so we go back and read that line and see all its hidden meaning and wonder and strength. Or, maybe they are just amazing in their own right.

Natalie said...

There were some great ones here! Whenever I think of first lines I think of REBECCA- "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."

Stephanie, PQW said...

Many of these are from books I'd forgotten I'd read. Maybe it's time to read them again.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Davin: I don't like my first lines yet, either, but I hope studying these will help me see how it's done.

Tess: I'm thinking it's a combination of what you say. The work itself has to be amazing to birth a great first line. But it's up to the author to find that perfect place to begin.

Natalie: Good one!

Stephanie: I just re-read The Handmaid's Tale and am so glad I did. There's a reason these books have staying power.

Robyn Campbell said...

Me thinks me better rethink the first lines in my novel. I had liked my first sentence until I read the one from Tracks. Yikes, I've got some thinkin' to do. Super post Tricia.You really have made me think. Okay now, how many times can I use the word think in this comment? Sheesh!

Now for my favorite first line ev-ah;

The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it. What book is that from? Huh, huh? :)

Corey Schwartz said...

Wow! #39 really jumped out at me. Haven't read it, but i think I might now!

Sarah said...

Those are excellent first lines. But (woe is me!) I didn't recognize ANY of them. I guess I'm in need of some Banned Book education.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Robyn: Could it be Black Beauty, you horse-lover, you? I confess, I cheated and looked it up. I read BB many times as a kid but sure didn't remember the opening line.
Yeah, the line from Tracks is something. She's a powerful writer.

Corey: I know! Doesn't that just about knock the knees out from under you? I did read it, and remember it as a stunner. Although some people apparently have trouble with the way she weaves multiple storylines. I haven't read it in so long, I don't remember that. I shall have to give it another look.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Sarah: Glad you like them, but no woe-me-ing allowed. Just settle in for some fabulous reading!

Robyn Campbell said...

You cheated???? :0)

Isn't it lovely? I have it ingrained in the ol' head.

Donna said...

First lines takes me back to the classics. The only ones I can list without looking, and they might be slightly off, are:
"Call me Ishmael."
"It was the best of times and the worst of times."
"Whether or not I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life . . . "

Yat-Yee said...

Ooh. A collection of great first lines. I am salivating. Will have to link to this post for my next Grab-A-Line Monday.

Donna said...

I went around the house looking at first lines of novels I loved. Strangely enough, the lines weren't that memorable in themselves. (I actually like being drawn gradually into a wonderful novel, but flash fiction and short stories have to catch me fast or else.)

I did appreciate this first line from Margaret Atwood's THE BLIND ASSASSIN: "Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge." (This was fair to the reader, since the story was built around that event.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Robyn: ;)

Donna: Well, your memory is on track with the editors because you just listed #1 Moby-Dick; #9 Tale of Two Cities and #20 David Copperfield.
Glad to hear you were enticed to pick up other novels and read the first lines.

Yat-Yee: Aren't they great? Love to have you link.

beth said...

Love this! It's so neat to just look at first lines. That's what first turned me onto Charlotte's Web (awesome first line there).

Suzanne said...

What a wonderful post! Amazing!

I'll play: Here's the first line of my currently shelved book.

Lucy was screaming and God wasn't listening.

Linda Kage said...

I love those first lines. Some gave me the chills, like, "They shoot the white girl first" and "It was a pleasure to burn." But now I gotta go out and buy me some books. Thanks.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Beth: *grins* Now I must go look up Charlotte's opening line!

Suzanne: Ooooooo. Is that from your book? It's a stunner. Hope it will soon be un-shelved again.

Linda: *happy dance* Going book-buying. The world is grand. And, yes, chills come with some of those lines and continue through the books.

Karen Denise said...

Great post! Now I want to go back through all of my books and look at the first lines!
Oh, btw, I nominated you for Kreativ Blogger. Go check it out on my blog. Hope this isn't a repeat for you.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Hi there, Karen, thanks! It's fun to search for great lines. And thanks, too, for the nomination.