So on this week’s episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour, we devoted a segment to “First Impressions.” I took it as an excuse to bloviate about one of my favorite topics, “First Lines of Novels and Short Stories and What They Do and How They Do It.”
I, as is my wont, as the show’s resident grind, overprepared. The show’s a discussion, not a lecture, thank God, and I only got around to name-checking three or four of these. But there’s lots to say on this. And back when I taught writing, and the earth was new, and icthyosaurs swam the turbid seas, I prepared a sheet sort of like this for students.
These are just some of my favorites. You got yours. Don’t bogart them, give ‘em up already.
First lines can outfit your reader with important information for the journey ahead with remarkable efficiency.
- “Call me Ishmael” – Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. (Introduces a layer of doubt in the FIRST TWO GODDAMN WORDS, and in the third, if you know your Bible, provides you with a hefty does of foreshadowing – basically gives away the ending.)
- "It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen". – George Orwell’s 1984. (We are in a militaristic setting.)
- "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from a sleep of uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." – Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (This is all of the explanation Kafka provides for the huge, abiding weirdness at the story’s core – this flat assertion in the first sentence. That’s all you’re getting. Deal with it.)
- "Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple." - Grant Morrison, All-Star Superman. (Ok, it’s a comic, but that right there? Is a familiar origin story ruthlessly distilled into four perfect nouns, modified by four perfect adjectives.)
But sometimes efficiency isn’t the goal. Sometimes it’s about making sure your reader packed everything for their trip. Like, EVERYTHING.
- "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, 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. " – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (The air kind of goes out of the sentence there at the end, but really, how could it not?)
- “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”—Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (The most-mocked opening line in English literature, the inspiration for a contest of worst first lines, and you can see why: Wait, you’re saying the night was DARK? I see. Got it. Thanks, guy. I love how he doubles back on himself “this happened! Except when it didn’t, on the streets (did I mention we’re in a city? Which is why I said streets not roads? I didn’t? Well, that.)”
But first lines can supply your readers with clues to what’s coming without being so damn showy about it.