. . . or are you just happy to see me? Mae West got our attention with one of the most famous opening lines in history. So how important is a first line? In life, some people call them icebreakers, and they can mean the difference between getting a date with that just-right person or nailing that dream job. It can set the tone for a relationship with your new end-laws or neighbors. The more important an event, the more importance we place on it.
In a novel, the first line can be a killer or a clunker. It can lay there like an overcooked piece of fish or fire up the imagination and demand that the second line be read and the third . . . It can produce a ho-hum yawn or cause a gasp. And it is probably the most overworked, over written string of words in a writer’s life.
Some first lines drift away like smoke on an autumn breeze. Others laser themselves in our gray matter to be remembered and recalled until the grave. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of time . . .” from Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities comes to mind. The problem with that one is, back in school I was told it was a great first line. Admittedly it is, but what I’m talking about here are the ones that we discover on our own. The treasures in the attic or the gems buried in the bottom of the old dresser bought at a flea market.When I was in high school, I picked up a novel and read the first line, and knew in an instant that I would never forget it. That I would be able to recite it anytime, anywhere for the rest of my life. And because of that line, I devoured the rest of the book and every other novel the author wrote. That first line was a black hole that sucked me in. It was an 11-word mixture of mystery, suspense, intrigue, darkness, and magic. As a writer, I aspire to someday writing a first line as good. For now that’s only a distant dream, but one I never stop working toward. Here’s that first line:
“The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm.” Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.
What’s your favorite first line?