I won’t judge a book by its cover, but I will by its first line. I’ve developed a habit. Open the book jacket, flip to the first chapter. If the first line is magical—if it transports, inspires or even just suprises—I’ll almost always buy the book. Or add it to my ever-growing “to read” list. Just like that. One line. A pocketful of words.
The first line of your book is crucial. Whether it’s a novel, a memoir or a business book, the first line will either hook your readers or turn them off. The first line can set the tone for the whole book and put readers in the right state of emotion or frame of mind. Truly great first lines don’t fade from memory when the last page is turned. Truly great first lines will call a reader back for a second or third turn with the book.
The best ones share similar grammatical and literary traits. They are often short and uncomplicated; use a strong subject-verb construction and rely on compelling imagery. Sometimes they use alliteration or other word play. Oftentimes they break rules. Below are some of my personal favorites and good examples of the above characteristics. I’ve listed some classics but have included—so as not to intimidate us working stiffs—some modern examples, too, including journalist and business books.
Take care with your first line. If a sentence gets a hold on you it will grip your readers as well.
A selection of 9 fantastic first lines:
1) The high grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
2) Six years after the fact, Dr. Paul Edward Farmer reminded me, “We met because of a beheading, of all things.” Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World
3) Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. Vladmir Nabokov, Lolita
4) Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
5) I have no reason not to answer the door so I answer the door. Dave Eggers, What Is the What
6) The first thing they do is attach electrodes to my fingers to see how much I sweat. Dan Pink, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future
7) Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened. Barbara Kingsolver, The Poinsonwood Bible
8) It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. George Orwell, 1984
9) You better not never tell nobody but God. Alice Walker, The Color Purple