What makes a great first line?

Aegisthus murdered by Orestes and Pylades. Red...

An entire story told in a single picture. Image via Wikipedia

I recently entered a competition to write the first line of a story. I won’t put in this article what my entry actually is, in order to avoid potentially influencing the judging.

To my mind, the very best first line in literature is Graham Greene‘s Brighton Rock:

‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him’.

This tells me everything I need to know to make me want to read further: the name of the main character, the likely direction of the story, the sense of conflicting intention (they want to murder him, implicitly, he doesn’t want to be murdered), the setting, and the relative speed of events. It also nicely contrasts with the title, which might otherwise suggest something rather more prosaic.

That’s not to say that a great first line means you are going to enjoy the novel. Nineteen Eighty-four begins with one of the best first lines in literature:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Nonetheless, I hated the book (though it’s a great book) and have no intention of ever reading it again. A Tale of Two Cities is generally regarded as one of Dickens’s weaker stories, but the first line is unforgettable:

“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,…”.

Likewise, an unprepossessing first line (or one that simply doesn’t represent the book very well) is no sign of an unenjoyable book.

“When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventyifirst birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton”

must surely have thrilled every reader desperate to hear more of the doings of the eponymous hero of The Hobbit, but it’s unlikely to have grabbed new readers in quite the earth-shattering way that The Lord of the Rings in its totality eventually did.

I asked the question about great first lines on the Amazon Vine reviewer’s forum. As well as commenting on a number of my possible entries, one forum member mentioned that it might do to treat a first line like advertising copy — something which serves no purpose other than to draw the reader in. I’m still mulling this one over. Certainly a dull first line is not going to get the party started (as they say), but there’s also a certain satisfaction in re-reading a book and savouring an author’s gift for words which goes beyond snatching as much of your attention as possible before getting you to commit to the story.

Looking at my notes, which I’ve been gathering over several years, it seems to me that the first line has to do three things:

  1. It needs to get you interested enough to read the second line, or, preferably, the whole of the first page.
  2. It needs to identify to you what kind of book you are about to read — setting up an expectation that it is a book you are going to want to read. Naturally, you need to satisfy that expectation in the book.
  3. It needs to ‘taste’ like the rest of the book. Or possibly smell like it. This is the first whiff of an experience you are never going to forget. Therefore, it must itself be unforgettable, or at the very least savourable until it is unforgotten.

Consider the beginning of The Hobbit.

“In a hole, in the ground, there lived a hobbit.”

This might seem an entirely innocuous beginning, but that is because we are used to it. If you were a child hearing that sentence for the first time, then what you are expecting to hear is:

“In a hole, in the ground, there lived a rabbit.”

Immediately the word ‘hobbit’ is used, the reader or listener is curious: we want to know what a hobbit is. Tolkien does not let us get very far with that before telling us how much hobbits hate adventures, which immediately creates tension, and, before we know it, the most ‘wretched adventure’ has overtaken Bilbo Baggins. In just two or three pages Tolkien has interested us in an entirely imaginary world which we know does not exist, and made us care enough about hobbits to sense the growing horror in the arrival of an adventure — yet we do not even know what the adventure is going to be.

It seems to me, reflecting further, that there are a few things which the first line must not do

  • It must on no account answer its own question. In this sense it is the opposite of the first line of a Press Release, which tells the journalist exactly what the story is going to be about.
  • It mustn’t try too hard: apart from the Dickens example (and this is maybe why the book that followed isn’t one of his best), all of the great first lines listed above are actually quite gentle, quite matter of fact. A grand beginning, such as the start of Beowulf or the Aeniad, is great for epic poetry, but it doesn’t quite suit the intimacy of the novel. Epic poetry is written to be declaimed, novels, except for books for small children, are written to be read by a single reader, or, for children’s books, written to be read by a single reader to just one or two listeners.

Here are some of the potential first lines which I decided not to submit to the competition:

She wasn’t Cinderella, he wasn’t Prince Charming, the shoe was glass-fibre, and it didn’t fit.

This was the first one I came up with, and I rather like it. But it’s more suitable for the blurb on the back cover than it is for the first line. It locks down the story too much. This is, in some ways, as story told in a single line, or perhaps a clever summary by the panellists on I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. If I read that as the first line in a story, I would probably feel I knew how the story was going to end. If it did end that way, I would feel I had wasted my time, and if it didn’t, I would feel disappointed.

Here’s another one:

The novel had racked up over two hundred and seventy thousand pre-orders, and all Pete now had to do was decide what it was about, and write it.

The problem with this one is that it’s eminently forgettable. We’ve seen, read or at least heard about dozens of books or films where a novelist is trying to overcome writer’s block and get the book finished, and we’ve heard many stories, of which the best is The Emperor’s New Clothes, about someone who has accepted payment and does not have a product to provide. It also falls into the eternal trap of writing about writing. Writing about writing can sometimes pay off, but probably every author has tried it at some point, and very few publishers are interested.

In a more science-fiction mood, here is one that attracted a few positive comments:

Liverpool was exactly as he remembered it, except for one thing: there were no people.

Aside from the fact that this is the scenario for far too many stories and films — The Day of the Triffids, 28 Days Later, I am Legend, you can see I was getting into a rut at this point. The rhythm of these three is all the same: building something up, and then knocking it down with the final sub-clause.

Here’s one I liked rather more:

The rest of this story only makes sense if you’re prepared to believe that Fontaine really had fallen up the mountain.

I like this one because it is immediately challenging the reader to suspend disbelief, which is part of the fun of reading fiction, and it also sets the thought rolling: how does someone fall up a mountain? Who is Fontaine? Why does he have a French name? It immediately makes an offer to the reader: if you’re prepared to suspend disbelief on one point, I will tell you a story which is quite possibly preposterous, but will follow its own logic and make complete sense provided you’re willing to believe that one thing. By the way, I’ve no idea how the story goes on, but I may get round to writing it.

My final thought on first lines is the following: don’t spend too much time on them, don’t agonise about them, and never treat them as some kind of a religion. An English teacher once told our class that he had spent years on his novel, and had rewritten the first page more than a dozen times. I don’t recall ever hearing that it had been published. With the same effort, he could have written, and possibly published, many novels.

If you want to be a writer, just get on and write. If you write ten novels in a year and know at the end of the year that all of them are terrible and could never be published, you’ve got a year’s writing behind you and a vast amount of experience, in novel terms. If you spend ten years refining just one novel, without ever completing it, then you are quite possibly polishing something which is just, actually, at the bottom of it, and not to mince words, simply not very good.

Write, edit, and then move on. And that goes for the first line as well.

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