One of the exercises in Writing Life Stories, by Bill Roorbach, is to write down the first lines of a ton of books so you can analyze them, and look at why they work. Below are some first lines from some of my books that are within arm’s reach of my desk.
Gut Symmetries, by Jeanette Winterson.
First there is the forest and inside the forest the clearing and inside the clearing the cabin and inside the cabin the mother and inside the mother the child and inside the child the mountain.
This sentence reads to me like classic Winterson. The lack of punctuation and repetitious phrasing creates a rushing, falling forward, feeling of things growing smaller and smaller until you reach the smallest thing and inside it is something larger than everything that led up to it. The sense of spiraling motion and paradox startled and hooked me. I have yet to read this book, but after doing this exercise, it will jump high up on my list.
Typical American, by Gish Jen.
It’s an American story: Before he was a thinker, or a doer, or an engineer, much less an imagineer like his self-made-millionaire friend Grover Ding, Ralph Chang was just a small boy in China, struggling to grow up his father’s son.
While this sentence contains little drama, it tells me the story has the global theme of son-trying-to-live-up-to-dad’s-expectations. It also sets the stage for the journey of Ralph Chang, and introduces a character that seems quirky simply based on his name – Grover Ding. Hard to take seriously anyone with the surname of Ding.
The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini.
I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.
This simple first line instantly frames the story as a remembrance, possibly a dark remembrance based on the description of the weather. It also makes clear the narrator will experience something very significant at the age of twelve, and as a reader, I want to know what that is.
Still Alice, by Lisa Genova.
Alice sat at her desk in their bedroom distracted by the sounds of John racing through each of the rooms on the first floor.
This sentence simply sets a scene, and although I did continue to read this book and enjoyed it in the end, this first line had no big impact on me at all. I can visualize the scene, so it is effective in achieving that and introducing two main characters, but it doesn’t scream, “Keep on reading!”
The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson.
It was Napoleon who had such a passion for chicken that he kept his chefs working around the clock.
This sentence sets the historical period of the book, while introducing a quirk the reader doesn’t expect to be associated with a figure like Napoleon. The image of Napoleon having people working around the clock to serve him fits, but the reference to chicken passion adds a unique twist and generates curiosity for the reader – at least when that reader is me.
I wrote down (or typed, to be more accurate) many more first lines than these today, but in the interest of NOT writing an overwhelming amount of information on this subject, I started with five. I’ll post more another time. What are some of your favorite first lines? Or, if you don’t have any off the top of your head, open up a couple books and jot them down – what do they do for you?