It is a truth universally acknowledged that once upon a time, it was a dark and stormy night… You see, I have this thing about first lines. Even if you accept the adage that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover—something that I am convinced is far more true of people than actual books, but that is the ramblings of another time—we have to start judging a book somewhere. For me, that moment is more often than not at the first line.
But honestly, it is much more than that. In a way, I collect first lines like someone might collect Pez dispensers. I am undeniably fascinated by them. I have this game with my mom and brother, started in younger years and carried on to the point of tradition. We seek out the truly great first lines and read them off, pitting one against the other to see which line comes out on top.
First lines set the tone of the story, sweeping us in instantly like an ice cream shop sample that leaves you salivating for the scoop. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” famously starts Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” off with the tongue-in-cheek style that encompasses the romance. This is incredibly different from the way Libba Bray begins her short story “Prom Night”: “The horizon was one long abrasion, the setting sun turning everything an angry red as it slipped below the dusk-bruised mountain range.” Instantly, something as beautiful as a sunset is compared to abrasions and bruises. You know right away this isn’t going to be the kind of story that Hollywood would make into a chick-flick.
First lines can introduce us to characters like a peripheral glance that makes us turn our head to see them better. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the line “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman,” he caused the instant desire to know “her” in his readers. Who was the woman who could produce such a reaction in the unemotional heart of Sherlock Holmes? And with that one line, a character was forever solidified in the minds of his fans. Then there is John Green’s “An Abundance of Katherines” that starts with this fantastic line: “The morning after noted child prodigy Colin Singleton graduated from high school and got dumped for the nineteenth time by a girl named Katherine, he took a bath.” Doesn’t that tell you everything you need to know about Colin? But just as much as it lets you know him, it also lets you know how much more there is unknown. What do you mean “for the nineteenth time”? And why did it end with the simple and entirely unextraordinary act of bath taking? It was the first of his solo novels I ever read, and he had me at that first line.
Sometimes, it’s almost as if writers willfully choose to rebel against set conventions. “You should start your book with an appeal to the reader’s sympathy,” says the helpful advice-giver. “Ha,” replies the writer. “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book,” is the first line that launches Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” daring the reader to put the novel down. Of course, then we readers showed our own rebellious natures by not obeying and skyrocketing the series to the best-seller list. Let me go put on my James Dean red jacket and read your book whether you like it or not, Mr. Snicket. Who knew we bookworms could be such anarchists.
It has always fascinated me how some first lines can simply intrigue us without saying anything astounding at all, as with Jedediah Berry’s “The Manual of Detection.” “Lest details be mistaken for clues, note that Mr. Charles Unwin, lifetime resident of this city, rode his bicycle to work every day, even when it was raining.” Say the line out loud, roll it around your mouth a couple of times. “Lest details be mistaken for clues.” There is something in the sound of that that gets to me, even if it leaves me completely unable to figure out why.
Then there is that one first line. The one that nearly everyone knows and almost no one can say where it’s from. It has been quoted and requoted, analyzed and parodied. It has become a standard and a joke. All of this for one simple weather forecast. “It was a dark and stormy night.” This infamous line was first put to pen by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his novel “Paul Clifford.“ This little seven word phrase is just an iota of the 400 plus page Victorian era novel. Who could have predicted it would far outlive its original source? Certainly not Mr. Lytton.
Still, though all of these first lines are close to my heart, my favorites are always the most simple ones. The lines that can be made or broken by one word, or one punctuation mark. “Elantris was beautiful, once,” wrote Brandon Sanderson in his first novel, “Elantris.” A simple sentence made so much more powerful by a comma that asks us to rest on the word “once” and everything it means. Or look at the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s best friend’s most famous first line, “All children, except one, grow up.” J.M. Barrie definitely knew the power a few words can hold when he wrote “Peter Pan.” But in the end my favorite first line comes from a novel that is especially important to me. Not only is it the first line, but the whole first paragraph from the master of clever wording, Ray Bradbury, in his most renowned novel, “Fahrenheit 451.” It is the kind of first line that encompasses every element of the others. It is simple, intriguing, an introduction to the lead character and certainly unconventional: “It was a pleasure to burn.”
These are just a few of the first lines in my collection and there are certainly a lot left. So, tell me, my fair readers, what are your favorite first lines?