First Impressions: first lines

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number 4, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

This is the first line of the book that changed so many of our lives. It changed mine. It grabbed me by the hand and dug 11-year-old me into the wizarding world head first. Of all the quotes I could pull out of Harry Potter, this is always one of the most profound and meaningful. I was recently in a room where a group of about 100 people were listening to a panel about Harry Potter and part of it the woman leading the discussion started to recite the first line. She didn’t get to the end of “Mister” before the whole room was reciting along with her. Those books are powerful.

I’m a writer if you’re a follower of my blog I’m sure you’ve caught onto to that by my short story Saturday posts. When I’m writing, I try to find something profound to drag people in. Something like: “I’m doomed to remember the boy with the wrecked voice, not because of his voice or because he was the smallest person I ever knew or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God.” That is the first line of A Pray for Owen Meany, a book that second to Harry Potter is the book that has changed my life in the most profound way humanly possible.  So much symbolism in these words. SO MUCH.

First lines can tell us something about the narrator is like if the narrator is reliable: “All this happened, more or less” (Slaughter House Five). Whether or not the narrator is invisible: “I am an invisible man” (Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison). What kind of person the characters are: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it” (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis). It can tell us about the state of mind of the narrator: “Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death” (The Fault in our Stars by John Green).

The first line can be the most important line in the whole book. If it’s terrible, you may not continue, but if it’s intriguing: “It was love at first sight” (Catch 22 by Joseph Heller), “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” (1984 by George Orwell) it makes you want to know more.

The first lines set the tone of the story, like A Tale of Two Cities, we all know that one right? “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.” These lines can take own a meaning all their own, separate from the book itself. I’ve never read A Tale of Two Cities, but I know that line.

The great books have great first lines. “This is a tale of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet that was dying fast” (Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut). We remember them because that book means so much to us as people. They are a tiny capsule of what that moment of time was like, either the moment the book was written, and the moment we first sat down and read those lines. “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” (Charlotte’s Web by EB White). “In an old house in Paris covered with vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines (Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans).

The first lines of people favorite books can tell you a great deal about them, when I asked my Facebook friends for their favorite first lines of books I got the regular ones that people site “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” (The Hobbit JRR Tolkien); “The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move” (Resturant at the end of the Universe by Douglas Adams). These books have staying power. These books are books we’re talking about decades after they were released. These are lines that stick with us more than any other line in the book. (The exception to that being Harry Potter, where the profound things are found between learning were Mr. and Mrs. Dursley live and “All was well.”)

There are about 700 million websites devoted to first lines in books. So I’m not saying anything new. We all know first lines are important. We all know the best ones: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy); “I’m pretty much fucked” (The Martian by Andy Weir). But there is still a need to want to discuss the best ones; there are new best first lines of novels being added to the list every year.

There are thousands of great books that don’t have amazing opening lines, so maybe they aren’t the most important things, but in doing the research for the post, I did find that a lot of the books on “Books to read before you die” lists and “Books with the best opening lines” lists were the same. So maybe there is something to it.

One this is for sure, the first lines of novels can have a much of an impact on readers and the material between the first and last pages. “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home” (The Outsiders by SE Hinton).

What are some of your favorite first lines? I would love to hear them.


Until next time Internet,






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