I read somewhere that authors should take an afternoon to waltz into a bookstore or library and read as many “first sentences” as they can. I did this a few years ago and think it was a worthy exercise: I learned quite a bit about what makes an effective first sentence. As an added bonus, I found a few great novels. While you might stay in the section containing your genre, I’d suggest moving around the store/library a bit.
The following is a list of “first lines” from books lying around my house and some of my favorite short stories. You’ll notice great variety in “what the sentence is about or says,” but the key element is that the sentence is interesting and makes you want to read on (or should).
Which of these is your favorite? What makes it effective? If you don’t like one, why doesn’t it work for you?
“It begins, as most things begin, with a song.” – Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman.
“When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had travelled across a desert of living sand.” – The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier.
“Then there’s the time I went as Hitler for Halloween.” The Littlest Hitler (from the short story of the same title) by Ryan Boudinot.
“The old woman remembered a swan she had bought many years ago in Shanghai for a foolish sum.” – The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.
“Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is that you have to die.” – Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk.
“Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.” – The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.
“This book begins with a plane crash.” – Beauty Queens by Libba Bray.
“When she had packed all the artifacts that made up their personal history into liquor boxes, the house became strictly a feminine place.” – Mercy by Jodi Picoult.
“It was a pleasure to burn.” Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
“It’s hard being left behind.” The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.
“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.” – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
“Patrick’s house was a ghost.” – Shine by Lauren Myracle.
“They took me in my nightgown.” Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys.
“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.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single girl of high standing at Longbourn Academy must be in want of a prom date.” Prom and Prejudice by Elizabeth Eulberg.
“My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split ups in chronological order:
1. Alison Ashworth
2. Penny Hardwick
3. Jackie Allen
4. Charlie Nicholson
5. Sarah Kendrew.”
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby.
“Walking to school over the snow-muffled cobbles, Karou had no sinister premonitions about the day.” The Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor.
“It’s hard to stop looking for something without simultaneously giving up hope.” “Zero” by Erica Krouse.
“When you’re seventeen and you’re the gay son of a Baptist preacher from Dallas Texas and you have a lisp and a drawl and a musical gift and you were names Oral because an angel told your daddy to do so in a dream, then New York City can seem like it’s saving your life.” From “Scordatura” by Mark Ray Lewis.
“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.” From “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe.
BONUS ENTRY: My father emailed me his favorite first line and though I have not read the book, I agree it is rather catchy: “The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no one in the room but the corpse.” War in Heaven by Charles Williams.