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Friday, March 18, 2011

First Line Fun

So much responsibility rests on a first sentence.

When seeking a good read, I may pull a book off a shelf based on a recommendation, or because a creative title calls out. Sometimes an unexpected graphic from the cover forces me to pause, or a brief summary written by a bookstore owner entices. But once I’m holding the thing in my hands, the first line had better vacuum me in like an Electrolux or I tuck it back with its brothers. There are too many good books out there to waste time wading into a story.

That thought occurred to me yesterday at the library, when I put down one novel on my TBR list because I hated the first sentence, but then picked up a different book, because the initial words compelled me. With that in mind, this morning, I conducted an experiment:

Taking ten books from our family room shelf today, I read each first sentence, which I’ve include below. Some are brief, some are longer then I expected; each has their own style, but in all cases, the words raised questions, made me ask, "What’s next?" and flooded me with a compelling need to know.

Here is the sampling:

“If the earth were flat, New Zealand would have fallen off a long time ago, it’s that far from Ireland. Leon Uris, Redemption

"She heard a knocking, and then a dog barking." The Pilot’s Wife, Anita Schreve

"Women on their own run in Alice’s Family." Pigs in Heaven, Barbara Kingsolver

“At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew in circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin.” The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd

“Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.” The Sun also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

“The Senior Partner studied the resume for the hundredth time and again found nothing he disliked about Mitchell Y. McDeere, at least not on paper." The Firm, John Grisham

“Mama left her red satin shoes in the middle of the road.” Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, Beth Hoffman

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. Gone with the Wind; Margaret Mitchell

“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving

“Caney switched on the light over his bed and reached for the last of last night’s coffee…one cold oily swallow at the bottom of a chipped stoneware mug.” The Honk and Holler Opening Soon, Billie Letts.

Oh, and here’s the one I haven’t read; the first sentence from the book I selected yesterday, in place of one on my list:

“Now that I have died, I see all and know all and there is nothing I can do about it.” The Other Side of Air, Jeanne Braselton.  See why I checked it out?

What’s the first line of your favorite book?


Yvonne Osborne said...

I guess this is why I keep changing my first line.

I'm glad you included the John Irving as it is one of my favorites. May I add:

"I remember the nest that hatched me."

from Song of Crow.

Thanks Liza!

glnroz said...

good exercise,,thanks. I start a short short story and i seem to be too anxious to be in the "middle" to quickly.. i need to review my stuff.. thankx agin

Mary Sullivan Frasier said...

It's hard to pick one favorite, but...

"Tap-dancing child abuser."

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - Rebecca Wells

Bish Denham said...


"The Unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone." The Last Unicorn.

Talei said...

Oh, you got me. I've got to think, there's so many books to choose from! ;-)

I have an award on my blog for you today, please pop over to collect when you can.

Happy Friday!! ;-)

'Yellow Rose' Jasmine said...

"It was morning, and the new sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a gentle sea." -Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

Thanks for this. I am going to bring this little book along with me on my road trip with my nephew. I think I will read it to him at night. We are leaving today!

Lydia Kang said...

Wow, those are some stellar first lines!

I don't have a favorite, but this one always sticks out:

"It was a dark and stormy night."
L'Engle, a Wrinkle in time. Such a cliched opening, but she's so aware of it by writing it that it catches your attention.

Wine and Words said...

The hook. The first line. The bait. The dime bag. Very important. How to say so much in one sentence? Now I want to get check my favorites...feel that prick again.

Anne Gallagher said...

There was a Master come unto the earth, born in the holy land of Indiana, raised in the mystical hills east of Fort Wayne.

Illusions -- The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Richard Bach

Love this book. Great post.

But do you ever find a book with a not so great first line, but the book is fabulous?

Karen Jones Gowen said...

Great first lines! Then there's the first chapter, it better be good too to keep me interested.

Jan Morrison said...

After dinner I sat and waited for Pyle in my room over the rue Catinat: he had said, “I’ll be with you at latest by ten,” and when midnight had struck I couldn’t stay quiet any longer and went down into the street.

First line from Graham Greene's The Quiet American. It makes me want to go read it again and I've read it about fifty times.

Helen Ginger said...

I especially like the opening line from The Other Side of Air. You've made me rethink my opening line. I think it's in the wrong place. Right now it's the closing line for the first chapter. I'm going to see if I can move it to the first line. It would mean a total rewrite of the opening chapter, but it'd be a good experiment to see if it's worth it.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I really like the first lines from Gone with the Wind and, of course, Pride and Prejudice.

I usually give a book a few pages to turn me- I love many of the books on your list, but their first lines alone didn't always catch my attention.

Sue said...

Liza, I've received an award and would like to forward it on to you.

Cruella Collett said...

Interestingly, I've read several of these books, and loved them, but I am not at all sure I would if I only had judged them based on the first sentence. But I feel the same way you do about first impression being crucial for the books I choose to read - if I'm not captured by page two, it is unlikely I will ever reach page three. I find this is even more the case now that I have a Kindle - where the free sample option makes me extremely skeptical to any of the books I consider. It certainly saves me a lot of money since I don't have the pretty cover to lure me in!

Anonymous said...

Oh, you know I'm a big fan of first lines, good lady! My current favorite is: "He was an old man who fished alone on a skiff in the Gulf Stream, and he had gone eighty days now without taking a fish."

Hemingway. Love it. :)

Kittie Howard said...

Your post was a delicious feast! Thank you! So many fabulous books that I need to re-read...can remember when/where I read each for the first time. Funny, tho, Scarlett wasn't pretty but by the time the book ended she was gorgeous!