Many an hour has spent agonising over the first line of a novel. So much rides on those few words that are the gateway to those that followed. A great first line can make the hair on the back of your neck tingle, and grab you by the eyeballs, dragging you into the story. A good first line can set the scene, introduce a character and mood, and make you laugh.
But what makes a good first line?
There are no solid rules, it depends what sort of book you’re writing and what you’re trying to achieve.
Below are listed some first lines from a wide range of books, from classic Dickens, through fantasy Tolkien, autobiographical Durrell, pulp fiction Elton and recent children’s author Colfer.
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 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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1870), Charles Dickens
A squat grey building of only thirty-four storeys. Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and, in a shield, the World State’s motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.
BRAVE NEW WORLD (1932), Aldous Huxley
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort.
THE HOBBIT (1937), J R R Tolkien
July had been blown out like a candle by a biting wind that ushered in a leaden August sky.
MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS (1956), Gerald Durrell
This journey took place in a part of Canada which lies in the northwestern part of the great sprawling province of Ontario.
THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY (1961), Sheila Burnford
We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.
THE HANDMAID’S TALE (1986), Margaret Atwood
8st 13, alcohol units 2 (excellent), cigarettes 7, calories 3,100 (poor)
2pm Oh why hasn’t Daniel rung? Hideous, wasted weekend glaring psychopathically at the phone and eating things.
BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY (1995), Helen Fielding
On the morning after the night it happened, Bruce Delamitri was sitting in a police interview room.
POPCORN (1996), Ben Elton
By the river Piedra I sat down and wept. There is a legend that everything that falls into the waters of this river – leaves, insects, the feather of birds – is transformed into the rocks that make the riverbed.
BY THE RIVER PIEDRA I SAT DOWN AND WEPT (1996), Paulo Coehlo
He came one late, wet spring, and brought the wide world back to my doorstep.
FOOL’S ERRAND (2001), Robin Hobb
How does one describe Artemis Fowl? Various psychiatrists have tried and failed.
ARTEMIS FOWL (2001), Eoin Colfer