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Memorable First Lines

Every once in a while, I prepare a column on some aspect of novel writing for Book Daily. I was looking over some already published, contemplating a topic for my next one, when I spotted a column I wrote almost two years ago. It occurred to me that readers as well as novelists might be interested in how an author crafts those memorable first lines.

Consider this situation:

Horns were honking at my double-parked car, my 2-year-old was pulling at my skirt, and the bookstore was overheated, but I was standing in the aisle desperate to find a book for next week’s train trip. How fast could I pick something? Aside from glancing at the covers, I had enough time to read only the first few lines before making my decision.

Far-fetched you think? Well, maybe, but the fact is most people choose a book within the first few minutes of opening it. So, an author’s first line had better intrigue the reader.

Remember these classic first lines: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” (A Tale of Two Cities), “Call me Ishmael” (Moby Dick), and “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (Anna Karenina)? And how about these modern examples: “When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy” (Kaye Gibbons’s Ellen Foster) and “The horror was in the waiting—the unknown, the insomnia, the ulcers” (John Grisham’s Gray Mountain)? Here are the lines I used to start my own novel, The Deadliest Hate: “The corners of Phoebe’s lips trembled as she handed me the wood-framed tablets. She’d been cradling them in her arms as if she were carrying a baby.”

I’ve been collecting impressive first lines for years. I write each one on an index card with the title and author and then sort the cards into categories. Is this starter magical, ironic, scary, or humorous? Does it express a feeling I’ve had, perhaps a shameful or fearful one? In other words, what makes that starter riveting? Is that first line an imaginative description of the setting, a narration in which the reader learns about a problem, or the hint of conflict embedded in a piece of dialogue? Categorize enough of them and you’ll get a sense of what kinds of starters work for you as a reader as well as a writer.

Okay. So, you’re not about to write a novel or start a collection of first lines, but still, paying attention to them might help you figure out what you’re looking for when that adorable two-year old is pulling on your skirt and the parking enforcer is about to ticket your car. How would you characterize the first lines of The Deadliest Hate? What kind of novel would you then expect? Want to find out? Then click here.

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