Recently, the topic of writers having a great first line in their novels popped up on Twitter. It gets discussed monthly on the bird app–like a million other writing and reading topics.
Writers are told by publishers, editors, and even readers, that the first line can be of paramount importance to the success of a novel. Other than a great blurb and cover, the first line is what hooks a reader. It’s what makes a person go from browsing to buying. We can debate the truth of that all day long, but let me share these:
“It was a dark and stormy night…” (we’ll discuss this one later)
“Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way.” – Anne Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.
“This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.” – The Princess Bride by William Goldman.
“When he woke in the woods in the dark and cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.” – The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984 by George Orwell.
“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.” – The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” – Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.
Personal opinions aside, these are some of the most famous opening lines in literature. The first line aside, many people would say these lines draw a reader in and have them begging to know more. They’re good lines. I personally feel some of them are even great.
Most likely, the line everyone is most familiar with is “It was a dark and stormy night.” Right?
Many people recognize this line from A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. Or maybe they associate it with Snoopy sitting on his dog house in a Peanuts comic strip, attempting to write a Great American Novel. Some consider it to be one of the most recognizable “first lines” in all of writing history.
Did you know it was first used by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his novel Paul Clifford? Did you know what follows the line?
“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
That first line and the adjective-strewn lines that follow have come to be one of the most (if not THE most) mocked openings to a novel ever. Yet…people still hear the line and think of great literature.
And that’s okay. What is good and bad writing is often a matter of personal preference. What makes a book “good” is whether or not people want to read it. Not if it’s technically perfect. Not if it’s the most creative book ever. It’s all about how readers feel. Literary critics can blow smoke up their own asses all day, but it’s the readers who ultimately decide whether a book does well and if it will be beloved.
So, how important is a first line, and what makes a first line great?
I don’t have that answer. Because it’s up for debate. What a literary critic would say, what an author would say, and what a reader would say, could be three entirely different things. However, I do know this:
A first line should tell a reader what they’re getting themselves into when they start a book, whether they realize it right away or not.
When I write the first line of a novel, I do my best to set the tone of the book. It’s a hint about the story that follows. Maybe it gives insight into the main character. Or the atmosphere. Or maybe it simply sets the stage. Regardless, the first line shouldn’t simply be attention-grabbing–it should match the rest of the book.
“It was a dark and stormy night…” Okay. Sure. Does the entire book take place during that dark and stormy night? Is the novel dreary and drab? Does the storm set some other action into motion? Why choose that line of all lines to lead into the novel?
I can’t answer for Edward Bulwer-Lytton, but let me share some of my opening lines with you and explain them.
“When the conditions are right, meaning that it is not too hot outside, and we’ve gotten enough rain, the creek fills all the way up.” – A Surplus of Light.
If you’ve read A SURPLUS OF LIGHT, you know how integral the creek is to the relationship between Mike and Ian. The book begins and ends at the creek. Their summers are spent at the creek.
“Normally, I don’t have a meltdown when we run out of oranges. I have some coping skills that help me deal with unexpected changes in my daily routine.” – A Tremendous Amount of Normal.
This line leads into giving the reader insight into Noah’s and Will’s relationship. It gives a hint that one of the main themes of the book is about deciding for ourselves what “normal” is supposed to be.
“Sugar was what my brother’s coat always smelled like because his favorite activity was going to the bakery to watch the donuts being fried in the giant vats of grease and then being glazed while they were still piping hot.” – Between Enzo & the Universe.
Anyone who has read this book knows about the coat made of sugar and blue clouds, what it means to Enzo, and how this line sets up the devastation he feels when the coat is lost later. The coat is the catalyst for Enzo stepping out of his old life and into something new. Its loss sets him on a path toward hope. The loss of the coat made of sugar and blue clouds…essentially…irrevocably changes Enzo’s life forever.
“My shoes aren’t a dusty brown; they’re actually black.” – Possibly Texas.
Not is all as it seems with Jordan’s shoes. It’s a hint that nothing is as it seems with Possibly, Texas. The shoes look brown…but they’re not. Maybe that should tell a reader to not believe all is as it seems with everything else in the book. This novel is relatively new (it just came out in March 2022), so I won’t explain this one too much. Also, I wanted an opening line with a semicolon because people say they don’t belong in novels, and I don’t agree with that, and I wanted to piss some people off. I’m that bitch sometimes.
So, my personal writer opinion is that a first line should set the tone, give readers a hint as to what is to come, and don’t have a first line that is beautiful but, ultimately, means nothing to the rest of the story. Even if the line means nothing to the reader in the beginning, by the end of the book, it will become a revelation. First lines that impress immediately often mean nothing in the grand scheme of the story. Those that slowly unfurl like a flowering plant are the ones that stand the test of time.
Just my personal, pretentious opinion.
As a “treat” (I think) to my readers, let me share the opening lines from THE BEES AND OTHER WILD THINGS (the sequel to A SURPLUS OF LIGHT, coming October 21st, 2022). There are two “opening” lines because there is a prologue and then the first chapter.
“The crash that was heard through town that fateful night tore people from their sleep, though no one bothered to rise from their beds.” – Prologue.
“As far back as recorded history went, the creek had never been so dry.” – Chapter 1, Carson.
Tremendous Love & Thanks,