The Importance of a First Line

Lately I’ve seen several online articles and links about the first line of books. It’s interesting how we remember the first line of a book and how important it is or may become to the entire story. A post on the Facebook group Book Riot asked readers to post their favorite first line of a book and it was impressive how many responses they received. There were opening lines I expected that many of us know, but there were many more that are not nearly as well known. The first line of a story is so important, complex, and telling that we sometimes do not give it the value and weight it deserves.

I completed a little research into the most well-known first lines and found the common strand among them being that they are all a glimpse into the entire story and they can be used independently of the novel. For example, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” from Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. That packs a punch.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens first line is frequently abridged due to its length. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” With an opening line like that, the reader must know they are in for a story of ups, downs, twists, and turns.

There are first lines that tease the reader such as “It was a pleasure to burn” from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. There are first lines that begin a story sure to shake our notion of reality such as in George Orwell’s 1984, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Most lists of most famous first lines begin with Jane Austen from Pride and Prejudice, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The satire of this line keeps getting better through time.

And then there are the children’s books that have just as impressive and memorable first lines. Ask most anyone aged 50-10 and they will immediately recognize: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” Thank goodness J.K. Rowling allowed those Dursley’s to have such a “normal” life in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone!

Irony and cleverness are fun starts to books such as. “There is no lake at Camp Green lake” in Holes by Lois Sachar; “The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world” in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson; “First of all, let me get something straight: this is a journal not a diary” in Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney; and “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book” in A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket.

And my personal favorite, which one should know by the first line that it’s not going to end happy for someone with, “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” E.B. White’s first line in Charlotte’s Web is a shocking start for a children’s book and yet children and adults love the honesty of life on a farm. I love that first line because it is the beginning to a story that I adore. I ugly cry every time I read it, but it is still my favorite.
Think about the first line of the book past, present, and future. Ask what does that first line say to you and then consider how incredibly hard and stressful that first line must be for the author knowing its importance. The significance of a first line may make an entire book. No pressure there future authors.

Leslie Scott is the Director for the Prosper Community Library.

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