I feel confident in assuming that anyone reading this has heard that phrase more than once. It has been immortalized, mocked and re-used countless times and in countless forms throughout the years, but is a testament to one thing: the power of a novel’s first line. Many people might not know that it was originally used as the beginning sentence in Victorian writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford. (I confess: I didn’t!)
The opening words of a book are, quite often, a make-it-or-break-it scenario. To quote librarian Nancy Pearl, “I think when you read a good first line it’s like falling in love with somebody. Your heart starts pounding … it opens up all the possibilities.”
I personally was instantly hooked when I read the first sentence in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, “In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.” After this intriguing opening, the rest of the book did not disappoint. It is heartbreakingly lovely. Another first line I’ve always loved is from Dodie Smith’s classic I Capture the Castle: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” Don’t you just feel compelled to keep reading about a narrator who writes from this vantage point? I did!
For fun, can you identify the novel from which the following first lines are taken? I’ll include a link after each quote if you’d like to find the book at one of Fontana Regional Library’s branches, or you can wait and see all the answers to my pop quiz in a comment I’ll leave on this blog entry.
- “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.” (Found in library catalog here)
- “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (Found in library catalog here)
- “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.” (Found in library catalog here)
- “124 was spiteful.” (Found in library catalog here)
- “All this happened, more or less.” (Found in library catalog here)
- “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.” (Found in library catalog here)
- “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” (Found in library catalog here)
- “Call me Ishmael.” (Found in library catalog here)
- “Mother died today.” (Found in library catalog here)
- “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” (Found in library catalog here)
The American Book Review has a list of the 100 best first lines from novels. I was interested to see how many I recognized, how many I didn’t recognize, and how many first lines have piqued my curiosity to read the novel they’re taken from.
To end on a silly note, not every first line is as quite so riveting as the 100 mentioned above. To celebrate this, there is the Lyttle Lytton Fiction Contest. It is, in their own words, “a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” Here is an example of such a composition: “Turning, I mentally digested all of what you, the reader, are about to find out heartbreakingly.” Clamoring for more? Read at your own risk!