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Beginnings

*I’m off to Santa Barbara for the weekend. I’ll attend to your comments when I return. Have a nice weekend.

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What are your favourite first sentences from books? Is there a book that you liked specially because of its first sentence? Or a book, perhaps that you didn’t like but still remember simply because of the first line?

The first line of a novel does not have to be very catchy or foreshadowing or earth-shattering, although the opening paragraph might hints at something important the author wants to convey. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell just by looking at the first sentence. An example of an introductory sentence that not only encapsulates something essential about the remainder of the work would be this from Heinrich von Kleist’s story The Earthquake in Chile, from the collection The Marquise of O and Other Stories:

“In Santiago, the capital of the kingdom of Chile, at the very moment of the great earthquake of 1647 in which many thousands of lives were lost, a young Spaniard by the name of Jeronimo Rugera, who had been locked up on a criminal charge, was standing against a prison pillar, about to hang himself.”

It’s a sentence so full of bravado and playful assurance that I simply can’t drop the book and read on to find out what happens. Other seizing, popular first lines would be:

“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”

What a cracking first line from The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley. Here’s another one, from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy:

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

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15 Responses

  1. Writers who can produce a first line that grabs are talented, no doubt about it, but there are others who are capable of producing fantastic novels without that gripping first sentence.

  2. Some first lines may be fabulous, but it seems the author’s entire talent was used up in the effort. Those are probably the saddest books of all, worse than a bad book that’s bad from beginning to end.

    I like The Go-Between first line… it’s very poetic. 🙂

  3. I go for good middles! THe Blind Assassin has a very boring beginning but it grabs attention midway through and you can’t put it down!

    Here is my BTT post

  4. I’ve always loved David Copperfield’s opening line: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” I often think of that when life seems mundane and tedious — will I be the hero of my own life?

  5. I also included the Tolstoy line. I just love it and think it couldn’t have been done more succinctly. There is a reason it’s a classic.

  6. I was just saying something similiar in a comment I made on another blog. I often will read the first paragraph of two of a book I am considering adding to my TBR collection in order to see if it’s something that I would like. A first sentence alone is not often enough to carry a book. I do love a catchy first sentence, but it is not the most important thing to me.

  7. I admire an author who pull off an amazing opening line.

  8. Wonderful examples. What I like most about the last two is that they don’t reveal anything about place or period and could be from a contemporary novel. They are just universal.

  9. I like the one from Anna Karenina.

  10. This is such a great booking through thursday post. I’m enjoying what others are posting as their favorites lines.
    Have a wonderful weekend Matt!

  11. I’ll have to look into The Go Betweens. I’m intrigued by that first line. It’s a good one.

  12. Great post! As an author myself, I often think very hard about that first line and really try to pull the reader in and convey a certain image or tone for the book overall. Here are a few of my own first lines…

    “Where is your goat?”

    “This is something you may or may not know.”

    “Memphis sits on the southwest edge of Tennessee where the end of Highway 51 and the beginning of Highway 55 blur together.”

    I have too many of my personal favs from other books to mention, but here’s a fun one from an advanced reader’s copy of The Crow Road by Ian Banks due out in August…

    “It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

    -Shannon

  13. Hang on, didn’t the Crow Road come out years ago? I feel like I’ve just stepped into some kind of time, um… what’s the difference between a slip and a warp?

    The first and last lines of The Great Gatsby always work for me.

  14. I always liked the first sentence of Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher. It’s something like, Perhaps I shouldn’t have given my phone number to the emergency room doctor who pumped out my stomach.

    As a writer, I’ve been told that the first line should always grab a reader’s attention, but some stories are quiet and slowly build to a boil.

  15. Great post Matt! I’ll have to check out The Go-Between. I have seen that this book is one of your top fiction picks. Gotta read it then! 🙂

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