Wednesday, February 24, 2010

First Sentences

It might be the sentence that gets the most re-writing in anyone's manuscript. It certainly garners a great deal of attention. The dreaded first sentence. Experts dictate this sentence sets the mood and pace for the thousands of sentences that will follow. Grab the reader! Make it impossible for them not to keep reading!

No pressure.

Here's a small collection of what some might say are the best first sentences in literature.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Jane Austen - Pride and Prejudice

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Leo Tolstoy - Anna Karenina

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
George Orwell - 1984

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.
Paul Auster - City of Glass

Call me Ishmael.
Herman Melville - Moby Dick

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.
J.D. Salinger - Catcher in the Rye

And now...just for fun, (and to make me feel humble and small) here's my first line (at this point) in my WiP:

The housemaid's scream is as sharp as the shards of Venetian glass surrounding the corpse.
Elspeth Antonelli - Spy My Shadow

Do you have a favourite first line? How long did it take before you knew you'd written the right one for your current WiP?


  1. Oh, Elspeth! I *like* that first line!! It is delicious!! Now I *really* want to read your book! Hmm... You've chosen some really strong example first lines, too, in terms of famous ones. I happen to really like the first line from Catcher in the Rye, so I'm glad that you included it.

    I like my own first lines to give the reader a sense of time and place, so I usually mention that in my first sentence. I don't grab the reader's attention the way you do, though. I shall have to start thinking about that!

  2. Margot; Thank you SO MUCH for your kind words! They mean the world to me. There were so many first lines to choose from - I decided to go with the classics.

  3. I'm not sure it's too important to grab the reader in the opening sentence. Provided the paragraph it's in isn't dull and about how bad a poor white chick is feeling, you can still seize their attention.

    Then again, there is nothing quite like that spectacular opening sentence, is there? I think we writers place more importance on it than they readers. :)

  4. I love those opening lines, especially Austen's. I agonized over the intro line to Hatshepsut and finally decided on one that kind of encapsulates the whole novel.

    If only she were a boy.

  5. Your first line is great! My current gem is still being polished. Sigh.

    I have an award for you on my blog.

  6. I like your first line! It works, pulls you right into the story. I haven't come up with anything I'm happy with yet...

    One first line I find interesting is:

    "The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come to pass, leaving memories that become legend."

    I'm not sure how much of a hook it is, but Robert Jordan used it (actually an entire paragraph) to open every book in his Wheel of Time Series.

    (Something for you over at my place as well)

  7. I love your first line, Elspeth. It makes you want to keep reading. In my memoir, I had to go for the first paragraph, not the first line. Could never come up with just one line that grabbed. The first line from "Catcher in the Rye" is just the best, isn't it? I'd forgotten just how good.

  8. MJ; I agree. I think that first paragraph is all important. Any writer has only got so long before a reader closes the book. I don't get far with any book that starts with whining - unless it's funny.

    Stephanie; You were able to write a sentence encapsulating the whole novel? I'm in awe.

    Carol; Thanks. We'll see if it stays. Thanks for the award as well!

    Deb; What an interesting first line. There are so many to choose from, aren't there? Thanks for award. I'm feeling very honoured today.

    Karen; Thank you! I'm so glad you like it. And I agree about "Catcher in the Rye" - it's wonderful.

  9. I love your first line, Elspeth, and agree with others that the first paragraph should be just as strong. The first line always pulls me in, but the paragraph is what keeps me reading.

    Here is the first two sentences of my novel, One Small Victory:
    The car hurtled through the darkness as the wind whipped through the open windows; a cold lash against his warm skin. Mike braced his feet on the floor and fought a rising sense of panic.

  10. Maryann; It's true - the first paragraph has to live up to that first line. And the paragraph after that, and after that...
    The beginning of your novel is great - talk about being thrown right into the action! Well done.

  11. That's a most excellent first line Elspeth. I'm sure the rest of the novel is superb, as well.

    My fav first line (that I wrote, and yes, technically, it's two lines) was for one of my trunk novels.

    Never killed a cop before. Never had to.

    Unfortunately, the rest of the novel sagged from there.

  12. Your first line does a great job. Mine's okay at this point, but I'll be searching for something stronger.

    One of my favourite first lines is from Farenheit 451 -- It was a pleasure to burn.

    Love it :)

  13. Not to be redundant, but, your first line is terrific. My favorite first line is from Dickens, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

    Best Wishes Galen Kindley
    Imagineering Fiction Blog

  14. I like your first sentence too. The Orwell quote from 1984 is one of my all-time favorites.

    My current wip first sentence (at least for today): Lynnette Foster had made a terrible mistake.

  15. Alan; Dude, it's most excellent? Whoa, thanks. I like the rhythm in those lines of yours. Are you sure the sagging can't be lifted? (wow, I just went to an interesting place)

    Jemi; There were so many great lines to choose from, I could have made this post pages and pages long! Thanks for being kind about mine.

    Galen; Praise for me is never redundant. Never. I thought about using the Dickens line - it IS tremendous.

    Patricia; Isn't the Orwell magnificent? Right from the start the reader knows something odd is going on. I love your first sentence. Let's see if we both decide to keep them!

  16. Your first line definitely grabs my attention and makes me want to know more.

  17. These are indeed some great classic first lines. Liked yours, too. The opening sentence in my last novel, Owen Fiddler, is:

    His first thought was he had to puke--right now.

    Hey Elspeth I like your "10 Writing Rules" post so much I did one of my own today on my blog with a shout out and links to your blog as well. :)

    Marvin D Wilson

  18. The ANNA KARENINA opening line is the legendary one.
    I think closing lines are much more important than the closing ones. Sometimes a good closing line can cover up all the bad things in the book making you remember just the last sentence and forget about the weak parts in the novel.


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