Tuesday, January 31, 2006

How's this for openers?

Via The Happy Booker, I just discovered (American Book Review) LitLine's 100 Best First Lines from Novels. I was surprised at many of the opening lines that made the list. For instance, Herman Melville's "Call me Ishmael" (Moby Dick) isn't particularly compelling. Neither is Albert Camus' "Mother died today" (The Stranger), Sinclair Lewis' "Elmer Gantry was drunk" (Elmer Gantry), Joseph Heller's "It was love at first sight" (Catch-22), and a number of others. It would have been better to call this a list of the most memorable rather than the best first lines. Many of the openers listed are remembered only because the books they kick off are so well known.

A great first line should grab the reader and yank her into the story. My friend Victoria Bylin began her historical romance Abbie's Outlaw this way: "When the Reverend John Leaf saw Abigail Windsor standing at the top of the train steps, dressed in black and shielding her eyes from the noonday sun, he knew that all hell was about to break loose." Hmm. That's rather an odd thing for a minister to be thinking. Are you curious about the woman in black and about his reaction to her? I was, so I kept reading.

What are some of the best first lines you've read?


J. Mark Bertrand said...

I've always been partial to the opening of Graham Greene's The Third Man: "One never knows when the blow may fall."

Bryan D. Catherman said...

The book I'm reading now, July, July by Tim O'Brien, starts,

"The Reunion dance has started only an hour ago, but already a good many of the dancers were tipsy, and most others were well along, and now the gossip was flowing and confessions were underway and old flames were being extinguished and rekindled under cardboard stars in the Darton Hall College gymnasium."

Julana said...

Brenda, ma cherie amie, (pardon my awful French),
"Call me Ishmael" IS one of the best first lines I've ever read. The name Ishmael is loaded with connotations.

Dick Francis has some great first lines. I forget the best, but it went something like this: My morning was spent in ecstasy, my afternoon in ---, and my evening in agony. Go to the library and check out the first lines of his shelf of books, sometime.

Dennie McDonald said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dennie McDonald said...

My fave - that has stuck with me for several years - "The cactus was melting."

Don't know why - but I liked it - it was from a Harlequin Duets book Just Desserts / Green Eggs and Sam (Duets, 80) Jennifer Drew

sorry - helps if you spell everthing correctly

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Let's see, how about....

Staring in increasing revulsion at the mushroom-and-Swiss-cheese omelet on the plate in front of her, Shelby Franklin was distinctly aware of each cold, tingling bead of persperation that erupted on her forehead.

Yahooo, it came to day!!!

Julie said...

"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." From C.S. Lewis' Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the 5th in the Chronicles of Narnia.

Julie said...

Silly me. After I posted, I read the list, and my favorite was already on there.

Millenia Black said...

Don't remember them specifically off the top of my head, but I know there are at least two authors that always have fantastic first lines. Hook you immediately.

Jodi Picoult - awesome.
Sidney Sheldon - phenomenal.

SAND STORM said...

Sheesh everybody's doing it.

Marianne McA said...

I like Harry Potter's opening line: 'Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.' [J K Rowling]
And the first line of the Beekeeper's Apprentice: 'I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him.' [Laurie R King.]

Marianne McA said...

...And, thinking about it further: 'Marley was dead, to begin with.' from Dickens' Christmas Carol.

[That's from memory, so I hope it's right. I can't tell if it's a 'best' first line, or just a memorable one, but to hear it is to have the whole story instantly come to mind.]

Brenda Coulter said...

This is fun. Thanks for playing along, everyone.

Here's another great opener, this one from Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur:

King Uther Pendragon, ruler of all Britain, had been at war for many years with the Duke of Tintagil in Cornwall when he was told of the beauty of Lady Igraine, the duke's wife.

Uh-oh. Sounds like the duke had better look to his lady, huh?

Brenda Coulter said...

To Julana: I understand what you're saying, but there's still not enough in that three-word sentence to tease my imagination.

To Steve: Great minds....

To Bonnie: Thanks for letting me know you received my book. Hope you enjoy it.

Winter said...

I've got two favs. The first one is what drew me to Dee Henderson.

"They were going to drown. Kelly Jacobs could already see the headline on the front page of the weekly Coronado Eagle community newspaper: Riptide Kills Teen and Lifeguard." True Devotion

And this by L.K. Malone

"The Americano was an easy target. Eloisa had spotted him ten minutes before, and the little band of ladri not long after." Divided Loyalties

Brenda Coulter said...

Winter, you're not playing fair. ;-) The name of this game is Great First Lines, so you have to stop at the period.

Katie Hart said...

47. There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. —C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)

This was my first idea too, Julie, but I thought I'd read the list before posting, and lo, and behold, it was there.

Anita said...

How about awful first lines from supposedly great novels? I'm reading A Passage to India - -which makes pretty much every "great" list of modern literature.

The first line:

"Except for the Marabar Caves - and they are twenty miles off - the city of Chdrapore presents nothing extraordinary."

Now, there's a line that makes me want to keep reading . . .not.

Unfortunately, I'm on page 190 and the lines don't seem to get much better from there.

Em said...

"Staring in increasing revulsion at the mushroom-and-Swiss-cheese omelet on the plate in front of her, Shelby Franklin was distinctly aware of each cold, tingling bead of perspiration that erupted on her forehead."

It came in the mail today, and my roommate and I spent a good half-an-hour subsequently cooing over the packaging and the fact that the main character's name is Tucker. I can't wait to bury myself in it just as soon as I finish my magazine article about its witty and charming author.

I really enjoyed our conversation last night. Thank you again!

Em again said...

Oh, Bonnie Calhoun beat me to it!!!

Have you ever read Moby Dick? It's quite possibly the most random book I've ever read. Characters spontaneously burst into song, and, at one point, Melville simply slaps in an entire encyclopedia of whales....

Brenda Coulter said...

Thanks, Em, for letting me know the book arrived safely. And I'm not anywhere near as interesting as you appear to believe, but it was fun talking to you.

It's been years since I read Moby Dick, but I remembered liking it, so I just pulled it off my shelf and will give it a glance this weekend.

Anita, I didn't remember A Passage to India having that awful a first line, so I just grabbed my copy to check you.

You misspelled "Chandrapore." The rest of your quote was, unfortunately, accurate. Why would anyone open a novel by admitting to readers that its setting presented "nothing extraordinary"?

Anita said...


Sorry about the misspelling. That's the one thing I hate about comments . . .you send 'em, and then it is too late! But, yes, I can't fathom why you'd open a novel with a line like that one.

I loved this blog post though and have really enjoyed reading all the great lines from others. Unfortunately, I read the book and forget it - - I'd have to search hard to find my favorite first line.