Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Art of First Lines

                “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” That is a famous line from one of Dicken’s works, A Tale of Two Cities. It’s a beautiful sentence, one that makes you think and wonder. That’s a good thing, by the way. Some other great first lines are, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” (from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) and “Call me Ishmael,” (Herman Melville, Moby Dick). I only pulled from the classics because I need to get to bed soon, but there are many great first lines out there. They don’t solely exist in the Victorian Age, either. A great first line is inventive and unusual, but most of all intriguing, making you wish that you would continue reading.

                Here are some first lines that I’ve used in my stories.

·         “I sharpened my pencil and prepared for death once again.” It has a slightly ominous feel, and seemed rather interesting when I got the idea. Preparing for death once is rather ordinary (after all, everyone goes through it) but more than once seems unusual. Either he’s a really great sword-fighter, his name is Clark Kent and he’s sharpening a pencil for some reason, or he is the subject of a story I’m currently working on. (Hint: it’s the third option.)

·         “Today will be the first day that I will speak in twenty-six years.” This is an introductory sentence given from the perspective of a hermit who is going back into civilization, even though she doesn’t want to. I heard her voice one day while I was munching on a hamburger, and had to write her story down. The hamburger was unrelated, unless of course it sparked the hermit idea, in which case I’m at a total loss.

·         “I came into this world with thunder, and when I left, the world seemed to be the same.” This has a very clear voice, at least to me, and it presents an interesting idea. How much does the world really change? Sometimes it changes a lot, and for this girl, it seemed the same. She has led a somewhat interesting life, but she finds it dreary. She also doesn’t really notice the world around her.


First lines clearly tell who your character is, and what your story is about. A Tale of Two Cities is about change and perspective. Pride and Prejudice is about a romance, and Moby Dick is about a guy named Ishmael who has a very definite idea of who he is. They set the background for the story, and often tell who your character is. This works for nonfiction as well. For example, in one of my nonfiction articles, I wrote, “I woke up knowing this was going to be the hardest day of my life.” This showed that I was going to undergo something that was challenging, but that I was committed to finishing, and this shows some of who I am as a person. First lines are a great –and fun- way to introduce the tone, setting, characters, and readers to your novel!

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