Thursday, May 3, 2012

What's My (First) Line?

The first sentence of a manuscript. Sometimes that first line just sits there, bland and uninteresting as oatmeal. But other first lines practically reach up from the page and grab your eyeballs and compel you to keep reading to find out what's happening.

A visit to your local bookstore provides a wealth of inspiration in successful first lines. These novel openings survived the rejections of agents and editors and made it (along with the rest of the novel) into print. I find it fascinating simply to pull novel after novel off shelves to read those first lines that successful authors used to capture readers' interest and lure them into a new story. Sound fun? Then check out these sample first lines from various authors, and then consider your own opening sentences.

"Three men watched intently as peculiar events occurred, one after the other, on opposite sides of the globe." (Safely Home, by Randy Alcorn)

"The sultry breeze carried not a single hint that the summer afternoon would give birth to the worst aviation disaster in American history." (The Note, by Angela Hunt)

"Well, now, ain't that a purty sight?" (Opal, by Lauraine Snelling)

"The swastika medallion dangled from the limb of the Christmas tree." (While Mortal Sleep, by Jack Cavanaugh)

"Down to the last day, even the last hour now." (The Testament, by John Grisham)

"He first thought of his feet." (Enoch, by Alton Gansky)

"When the tiny dart hit Pierre Sirois behind his right ear, his right hand reached up as though to swat an insect." (Mission Compromised, by Oliver North)

"Ryan was nearly killed twice in half an hour." (Patriot Games, by Tom Clancey)

"The first wave of pain seized his chest like a vice grip so that his hand flew to his heart and he gasped for breath." (Where Yesterday Lives, by Karen Kingsbury)

Each of these lines begins novels representing a variety of genres. In each case, though, the author has carefully crafted that beginning. Even before you know what's happening or exactly who is involved, these writers tease us into wondering what will follow.

Chances are, if you've read this far, you just might be a writer, too. Want to share the first line of a favorite novel? Or, is anyone brave enough to share a first line from your own work in progress?


  1. From my current WIP:

    The bite of Alan’s betrayal was lethal. The venom spread through Pam’s system as poisonous as a rattlesnake coiled in the Oklahoma dust.

  2. "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) Her sense of irony about relationships in her time-period is present from the first line!

  3. Aren't first lines fun to study?

  4. Better late than never, but let me add my works in progress, and then share a couple of first lines I'm impressed with.

    Here's one from the one I'm polishing and revising and rewriting, etc.:

    “Slow down, Jen.”

    This is from the follow-up that I'm working on, though I'm not worried what an editor or agent thinks of this one:

    A look of realization crossed police officer Jamie Ness' face.

    Why am I not worried? Because I know this won't be the first line when I get to reworking it. Jamie Ness won't even be in the first chapter. My focus would be on the primary character.

    Other first lines? I can't remember the first sentence verbatim but I liked Allistair MacLean's opening to "When Eight Bells Toll". I can't locate my copy of "Voyage of the Dawn Tread" by C. S. Lewis, but that's another. And finally, here's one from "The Shadowed Mind" by Julie Cave:

    He looked utterly ordinary.