Archive for the ‘First Lines’ Category

These are some of my favorite first lines from novels. Some I’ve actually read, and some I just like the first lines. For another collection of first lines, Google “The American Book Review’s 100 Best First Lines” for their list.

(One notable “exclusion” from this list is the first line from Daniel Defoe’s, Robinson Crusoe which begins with an long and awful account of the origin of Crusoe and his name. As a child I liked the rest of the book, but I remember feeling a strong dislike for that first sentence and wondered if I should continue. I’m glad I did.)

  • “Death had no good reason being out on a night like this.” – Jack Cavanaugh, The Guardians
  • “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost
    deserved it.” – C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  • “Mother Died Today. or Maybe Yesterday. I Don’t Know.” – Albert Camus, The Stranger (translated by Stuart Gilbert)
  • “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” – J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
  • “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 house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” – Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – George Orwell, 1984
  • “Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
  • “All children, except one, grow up.” – J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possesion of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
  • “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

And I saved the best for last…

  • “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” – J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Gotta love that mere hint of something unusual about to happen to stir up curiosity. And the subtext suggests that Mr. and Mrs. Dursley will not be happy about it! This suggests conflict, but in a comical way because of the wording of the final four words. Pure reading pleasure!

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Source: The Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine by Randy Ingermanson
Date: February 10, 2010
Issue: Volume 6, Number 2
Home Page: http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com

Good advice on hooking your reader.

A good first chapter does four things well:

  • It makes a contract with the reader
  • It sets a hook in the first sentence
  • It sets a second hook near the end of the first page
  • It sets a third hook at the end of the chapter

The reason you need three hooks is because readers have
three increasing levels of commitment:

  • If your reader likes the first sentence, she’ll commit to reading the first page.
  • If your reader likes the first page, she’ll commit to reading the first chapter.
  • If your reader likes the first chapter, she’ll commit to the rest of the book. If she’s in a bookstore, that’s the point at which she buys the book.

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Source: Your Brain on Stories | Neuromarketing.

Fabulous insight. The article is about writing stories for advertisements, but the concepts apply even more directly to writing any kind of fiction. This article is definitely worth a read.

That these stories resonated with readers for so long is very telling. In The Narrative in the Neurons, Wray Herbert describes another timeless piece of text, the opening lines of The Tower Treasure, a Hardy Boys novel first published in 1927:

Frank and Joe Hardy clutched the grips of their motorcycles and stared in horror at the oncoming car. It was careening from side to side on the narrow road.

“He’ll hit us! We’d better climb this hillside—and fast!” Frank exclaimed, as the boys brought their motorcycles to a screeching halt and leaped off.

“On the double!” Joe cried out as they started up the steep embankment.

When subjects read this passage and several others in an fMRI machine, researchers were able to observe which parts of their brain were activated as the subjects read different elements. Depending on what was happening in each sentence, quite different brain activation patterns were observed:

For example, a particular area of the brain ramped up when readers were thinking about intent and goal-directed action, but not meaningless motion. Motor neurons flashed when characters were grasping objects, and neurons involved in eye movement activated when characters were navigating their world.

Wray notes,

Readers are far from passive consumers of words and stories. Indeed, it appears that we dynamically activate real-world scripts that help us to comprehend a narrative—and those active scripts in turn enrich the story beyond its mere words and sentences. In this way, reading is much like remembering or imagining a vivid event.

I think the take-away for authors is clear. Write stories as if they are movies, but more than that, write stories as if readers will live out the events they read about – because they will. And if they do not live the lives of our characters, then they have not connected with our books in a meaningful, lasting way.

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You should already know to avoid adverbs throughout your writing, but did you know there are some sneaky ones that don’t end in ‘ly’? For examply, the word “this” can function as an adverb. (See: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/this)

Everybody go ‘Boo! Hiss!’.

So here are three grammar rules for first lines that I’ve gleaned from my sources and distilled for your reading pleasure.

Rule #1: Don’t use adverbs in your writing. If it can be said with an adverb, it can be said stronger another way since the only function of adverbs is to strengthen weak verbs.

Again, everybody go ‘Boo! Hiss!’.

Rule #2: Use pronouns sparingly in your first lines. Generally, the more specific your language is the better.

Lets look at an example:

  • He gathered up this strange coat into his arms.


  • Ronald gathered up the strange, patchwork coat into his arms.

Which example do you think is stronger?

Of course there are exceptions to every rule. Consider the following:

  • On February 24th, 2005 he remembered that his daughter’s boyfriend was coming over at about 6:15 that night and decided to get his gun out for cleaning.


  • Today Samuel remembered that April’s boyfriend was coming over this evening and decided to get his gun out for cleaning.

Again, which is stronger?

Rule #3: Stronger verbs mean a stronger emotional response in the reader. Robert Frost has a great quote on this: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

So, how about this next example:

  • I watched when this thing bearing teeth came out of the hole.


  • I recoiled as a creature bearing teeth came out of the hole.

Which comes across as stronger?

Note: The ‘Boo! Hiss!’ line came from a workshop presented by Angela Hunt at the 2009 Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. She doesn’t like adverbs either.

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