The First Line

Published June 16, 2010 by LS Murphy

“Call me Ishmael”. Everyone knows that’s the first line of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Even if you haven’t read Moby Dick, you know this line.

The first line of a novel is the hook that will draw a reader into the book. If it isn’t engaging, enchanting, or even a little kooky, the reader will become disinterested rather quickly. In this day in age of Twitter and texting and speed of light internet access, our attention wavers faster than ever.

Long opening lines, like the beginning of Tristam Shandy, might bore us to tears if not for it’s absurdity. Writers need to grab the attention from the first line more than ever. The blurb on the dust jacket just won’t cut it anymore.

Here are a few of my favorite first lines and why.

“Theodore is in the ground.” The Alienist by Caleb Carr. Three little words and I was hooked. I had to know who Theodore was and why he was dead. I barreled through the book and it’s one of my favorites to read repeatedly.

“All this happened, more or less.” Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. When I look back on my life, I can pinpoint the first time I read this book as the moment I really  knew I wanted to be a writer. But why this first line? Because it told me right there and then that it may or not be fiction. I wanted to know what the “more or less” was all about.

“Though I tried to clear my head of the effects of the effects of the fat, resiny doobie I polished off an hour before, things were still fuzzy as I stumbled into senior counsler Jeff DeMouy’s office.” Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas. The honesty, brutal as it is, of this first sentence pulled me into the book. I fell in love with Thomas’ prose. This book is where I was truly introduced into the world of modern young adult literature. Sure, I had gotten sucked into the Harry Potter world as well but Rats Saw God spoke to something deep within me. I didn’t have books like this when I was younger. (It was, in fact, published a few years after I graduated.) Maybe I just jumped over the young adult genre and straight into literature and mainstream fiction. After I read this book, I began devouring everything and anything YA. It’s the book that made me realize, after years of dreaming about writing, what exactly I wanted to write.

If it wasn’t for these wonderful books, and their opening lines, who knows where I’d be? Maybe A Clockwork Orange would have done what Slaughterhouse-Five did. Or maybe Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson would have taken the place of Rats Saw God. I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m all the richer for discovering these books and learning from them.


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