I don’t know about you, but when I’m in a bookstore, deciding whether to buy a book, I have a fairly set ritual. First I read the jacket copy or back cover blurb, then, if I like what I’ve seen so far, I flip the book open and skim the first page.
For me, the first page makes or breaks a sale. Heck, often it’s the first line, which is why I enjoyed the American Book Review’s 100 Best First Lines from Novels.
Here are the Top 10.
1. Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
2. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
3. A screaming comes across the sky. —Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow (1973)
4. Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)
5. Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. —Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
6. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877; trans. Constance Garnett)
7. riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. —James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939)
8. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
9. 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, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
10. I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
Isn’t it amazing how much (tone, voice, setting, plot) can be expressed in a single line? Reading this list reminded me why I've read some of these books, and why I'll never read others. What about you?
Don’t be fooled into thinking that this applies only to Classics. I pulled three books from my shelves, all published in the past five years. Check out how these talented ladies use their first lines:
“At the very beginning, she had seen his face and knew he would not let her live.”
Allison Brennan, Speak No Evil
No surprise that this book is about a twisted serial killer.
“When I was twelve years old I accidentally substituted salt for sugar in a cake recipe.”
Janet Evanovich, Twelve Sharp
If you haven’t read a Stephanie Plum novel before you still know immediately that she’s sort of off-kilter.
“Sometimes they went in with a flash and crash, but Lieutenant Gage always preferred stealth.”
Laura Griffin, Unstoppable (part of the anthology Deadly Promises)
We know immediately that Lt. Brewer is all about getting the job done.
Don’t forget: I’ll be posting a Q&A with Laura Griffin later this month!
How important do you consider first lines to be? As a reader, have you ever put down or picked up a book because of a first line? As a writer, do you spend time perfecting your first line?
Oh, and just for fun I’ve posted some of my own first lines on my blog.