Well, I did that first study, and I thought to myself, These books may merit five stars, but some of these first lines do not, so it seems only fair to remedy this with a post of five-star first lines.
I’ve decided to exclude from this study any first lines from texts meant to be experienced orally because those are intended to be memorized, seeming to give them an advantage over those meant to be read in print.
Excluding those mediums, five first lines of fiction I have memorized or all but memorized. These seemed to merit highlighting here. If I of doubtful memory can retain a first line verbatim or even near verbatim, the author has probably struck some heartstring. It is possible though that these books have the advantage of being among some of my favorites and of having been reread. I have read every book the first line of which is on this list at least twice.
This makes me suspect that this study is less objective than I usually hope that I am with book reviews or as I was able to be when my lines came from the merit of the books as a whole. I went through my shelves and read and rated first lines of each book that I’d read and that I owned. There were some certainly that deserved honorable mention, but I could not rate them as highly as those that I had memorized; they just did not have the same pull upon me.
My roommate, Eileen, owns a mug from the Unemployed Philosopher’s Guild of “Great Literary Openings.” These will be on my mug:
This line introduces a character and begs a question, creating a hook.
The Chronicles of Narnia, Book 5: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis.
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
What awful things has the character Eustace Clarence Scrubb done to deserve such a name? Read on to find out, or put down the book and never know. Talk about a hook. We’re also introduced to our opinionated narrator. A narrator’s voice isn’t discussed enough in creative writing classes.
This hook introduces characters and hints at setting.
The Dark Is Rising Sequence, Book 2: The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper.
“ ‘Too many!’ James shouted, and slammed the door behind him.”
I’m hoping that the unnecessary comma here is merely the symptom of the post-publication editing that occurred to compile all five books together for my edition of the sequence. (It’s also possible that in 1973 when this text was first published, this was still an acceptable comma.) Grammar aside, this line leaps the reader into a conversation between the speaker and another character, sets us near a building, and begs the reader to question as Will does in the next line, too many “What?” That question will lead the reader into the conversation, and the conversation into the relationships between the characters, and through the relationships, into the stakes of the novel.
This one gives us characters and setting, but we’re told a lot with just a little. Specificity can be helpful.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling.
“Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
We are introduced to married characters, the Dursleys, male and female. We sense the sort of stuck up, feather-ruffled personalities that accompany the Dursleys’ normality from the “thank you very much” and from the “proud,” maybe even from “perfectly.” We are further dropped into a setting: number four, Privet Drive. We are not told where (yet) to find Privet Drive, but we can make some guesses as to the sort of neighborhood where we might be. Privet is a type of hedge used often to create boundaries between neighbors and—as its name may suggest—to create privacy screens. Number four has neither a whimsical or a grand and an ancient name associated with it, but does have a standalone address (not an apartment number), giving us both a notion of the Dursleys’ middling status and their displeasure for whimsy. Another clue to the middle class status is that they are not ashamed to own the address. The “thank you very much” is a brief dip into second person that helps to draw the reader in. The reader herself has offended the Dursleys by suggesting that they might be anything other than normal or suggesting that they would wish to be anything but normal.
This one is a promise of future action and drama, gives us genre, and hints at least at setting.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 5: The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan.
“The end of the world started when a pegasus landed on the hood of my car.”
This sentence forecasts an exciting, climactic event that promises us adventure and gives us reason to tolerate the backstory that opens the story. Riordan’s works are always fast-paced adventure, and by his fifth book, I think he knew that his readers expected and wanted that fast pace. He was able to more gently ease himself into the action, spending a little more time on relationships between the characters, by appeasing us with this promise. This model should be used with care. One can give away too much of one’s story in a promise. This being the last book, the series having been building towards an epic battle, we knew to expect apocalypse, or at least the possibility of an apocalypse. Later books in The Heroes of Olympus series use similarly modeled sentences (“Even before he got electrocuted, Jason was having a rotten day” (Book 1: The Lost Hero)) to forecast the first conflict of the novel, usually a struggle that happens within the chapter and even within pages of the first line. Some forecast an event that happens within paragraphs. This one from Book 4: The House of Hades drops us right into the action by citing the “third attack”: “During the third attack, Hazel almost ate a boulder.” Breaking the line from The Last Olympian down farther, the “car” puts us in a modern setting (20th century or later). “Car” further is the American word, “auto” being the British. “Pegasus” lets us know that this is a fantasy novel. In modern fantasy, the pegasus as a magical creature has become more pervasive, but it has its origins in Western and specifically Greek mythology. This series of course happens to be about Greek mythology specifically, but I would hesitate from the isolated line, at this point in literary history, to suggest that that might be the case. Putting both “car” and “pegasus” together tells us this is low fantasy, fantasy set in our world.
This also may be a promise, but more certainly is a “universal” statement that refuses to be denied.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Comma usage was different in Austen’s day, I think, marking a breath instead of following a rigid set of rules. In some ways, this famous first line also forecasts later events: We are promised that at some point this will become the story of a man wanting a wife. I say this, of course, with over 100 years of 20/20 hindsight. We all know now that this novel is about the romance of Elizabeth and Darcy, and so when I say that we are promised a man of good fortune seeking his wife, it may be that I just know this as certainly as I know the novel from which this first line comes. The line itself however, more objectively, accepts no challengers. Let’s talk about the narrator’s voice here. We are forbidden from denying the truth of her statement about men. There is strength in these words.
Having reread with a mind towards this study all the first lines of the books that I own and have read, these in particular stuck with me, even though I don’t have them memorized:
This line gives us a character, makes us sympathetic towards her, and gives us setting.
A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama by Laura Amy Schlitz.
“On the best day of her life, Maud Flynn was locked in the outhouse, singing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’”
A promise of what’s to come, a character with a full name, a setting (an American outhouse), and an attitude of defiance that I think likely to make most readers sympathetic to Maud immediately—as if being locked in an outhouse were not enough to do so. Still, the singing transforms my sympathy from “Poor Maud” to “Rock on, Maud!” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is an American song, more widely known now, I’m sure, but it hints at an American setting, and tells us that we are post-1800. The chorus as we know it developed around 1850 and the lyrics as they are best known in 1862. It is a markedly Christian song. Look at all that detail!
This line is sneaky second person, a hook, and humor.
Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers by Grant Naylor.
“‘DESCRIBE, USING DIAGRAMS WHERE APPROPRIATE, THE EXACT CIRCUMSTANCES LEADING TO YOUR DEATH.’”
This is a sneaky, sneaky use of the second person to capture the reader, because you find out shortly after that this first line comes from a pamphlet being read by a third person character. Readers are of course encouraged to ask what were the circumstances of this death. There’s an element of dark humor here too in the exam question that pertains to “my” death. And one wonders how it is possible to answer questions pertaining to one’s own death.
This line gives us character, setting, and the character’s physical state—and makes use of poetic technique besides. (This last book I haven’t actually read, but it is among the books that I’ve bought based on their first few pages (I am one of the readers that cause editors to suggest a first five pages hook). I have recommended this book, this series, and this author almost solely on the strength of this line and its following first few pages.)
Beyonders, Book 1: A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull.
“The prince dangled in the darkness, shoulders aching, ancient manacles digging into his wrists as he tried to sleep.”
The poetry! The alliteration! The pain. So there’s a character, a prince—a male from a monarchal society and the highest socioeconomic class then—who is chained in darkness (presumably in a dungeon—presumably in an ancient dungeon if the manacles within it are ancient, so there’s our setting), trying to sleep, so maybe it’s night, or maybe he has nothing else to do, or maybe he’s exhausted from previous acts. We also get the character’s physical state: in pain, aching, possibly exhausted. Then of course the question, why is this man in the dungeon? Who’s holding him?
From this study we might actually be able to draw some conclusions: The best lines are ones that multitask. A line like “Elizabeth was a beautiful princess” or “It was night again,” while succinct enough to be memorized are not of the type that one feels compelled to memorize. Many of these memorable first lines include a hook: either a question posed or drama promised. Several of them use second person cues to help to draw in the reader, but I’m not sure that I would recommend this; such use of the second person has always seemed a bit of a cheat to me, much like using first person; I like a challenge. Many of these too include memorable details, and it’s probably those details that make anchors in my memory, helping me to recall the line later.
There are, of course, no real rules. What works on me won’t necessarily work on all readers, as perhaps is proved by the fact there is only one line that overlaps between my survey and the Unemployed Philosopher’s Guild’s. The previous study proves too that the best books do not necessarily have the best first lines.
Still here are some examples to consider when trying to craft the best sentence, wherever it might appear in whatever you’re working on.
What first lines do you have memorized?