Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Masterful First Lines

by Mindy Friddle

There are first lines, and there are masterful first lines.

Hi everyone,
I'm actually repeating this post, Masterful First Lines, which I ran on my own blog, Novel Thoughts. This post was great fun because it generated a lot of comments and emails. A number of writers and readers volunteered their own favorite first lines.

The best opening lines of  a novel or short story do many things at once: a first line may intrigue you, create tension or hint at a conflict, say something about a character. A first line is beautiful or lyrical or witty--always memorable.

Here are a few of my favorites (not including the works from our own authors here at A Good Blog is Hard to Find, of course!):

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
-- One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
 [It's famous for a reason. I'm always amazed how that barbed hint about the firing squad adds suspense, hooks me, until I find out what happens.]

Riding up the winding road of St. Agnes Cemetery in the back of the rattling old truck, Francis Phelan became aware that the dead, even more than the living, settled down in neighborhoods.
--Ironweed, William Kennedy
[Francis is, as he refers to himself, a "bum"--a homeless alcoholic, once a star baseball player, who now digs graves to earn money for his next drink.The Catholic graveyard has large marble headstones for the wealthy families, and unmarked for the poor. The cemetery is a neighborhood in perpetuity, divided by class.]

Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.
--Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
[I remember being shocked when I read that first line at 14-- Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful? Huh?]

In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together. - Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
[Love that line-- that confident narrator. Those characters.  Love that novel.]

The Grandmother didn't want to go to Florida.-- Flannery O'Connor, "A Good Man is Hard to Find."
[The best short story written in English. I'm not partial-- just because O'Connor was a southern writer. That simple line is sharp as a blade and will bring about the doom of the family, put them at the mercy of a serial killer, a nihilist. The Misfit shows no mercy, and as he coolly threatens  the grandmother, he'll  espouse his theory: ("Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead," The Misfit continued, "and He shouldn't have done it. He thrown everything off balance.")-- and then bring about the grandmother's moment of grace....but you knew that, right?]

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. - George Orwell, 1984
[Love that matter of fact craziness-- the world is off it's rocker, and has been for some time. We get that right away.]

They shoot the white girl first. - Toni Morrison, Paradise
['nough said.]

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. - Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
[Panoramic wide-screen line, filled with big ideas and a narrator who takes you by the hand.]

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. - William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
[Faulkner is such a visual writer, when I read him I feel I'm in a vivid dream--and this line plunges one in the story.]

We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. - Louise Erdrich, Tracks
[Oh, that gentle play on words, that brutal meaning:  'to fall' like the snow, like death.]

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. - Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
[You have to read this, after that opening.]

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. - Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
[Both gorgeous and foreboding as only Plath can do.]

They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. - Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea  
[The suffering caused by colonialism is in that first line.]

So, what's your favorite opening line?

Mindy Friddle is the author of THE GARDEN ANGEL (St. Martin's Press/Picador) and SECRET KEEPERS (St. Martin's Press), just out in paperback from Picador.  Visit and her blog, Novel Thoughts: On Reading, Writing & the Earth to read excerpts from her novels, interviews with authors, book reviews, and random musings. Find her on Twitter @mindyfriddle.


Laura Marcella said...

Great selections! I was glad you included Gone with the Wind. That's one of my favorite opening lines!

I also like:

"There is no lake at Camp Green Lake." Holes by Louis Sachar

"The small boys came early to the hanging." The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

And I know I like the first lines to The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd and Summer Sisters by Judy Blume but I can't remember them word-for-word!

Anonymous said...

I like this from Bright Lights, Big City: "You're not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time in the morning."

I love first lines that give you a taste of what the work is going to be all about.

I also love this one from Gods in Alabama: "There are Gods in Alabama: Jack Daniels, high school quarterbacks, big tits and also Jesus."

Peggy Webb said...

"My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call."
Pat Conroy
The Prince of Tides

The lyric beauty of his writing makes me weep with gratitude.

"The last major crime in the town of Verity was in 1958, when one of the Platts shot his brother over a Chevy Nomad they had bought together on time."
Alice Hoffman
Turtle Moon

Hoffman always delivers.

"My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered...."
Alice Sebold
The Lovely Bones

Wish I had written that!

Peggy Webb said...

"My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered...."
Alice Sebold
The Lovely Bones

Wish I had written that.

"My wound is georgraphy. It is also my anchorage, my port of call."
Pat Conroy
The Prince of Tides

The lyric beauty of his writing makes me weep with gratitude.

Peggy Webb said...

Sorry for those double entries. There's a cyber monster inside my computer. My first comment didn't show, so I wrote a second. Then they BOTH popped up. Sigh!

Mindy said...

All great lines. Bright Lights gets repeated a lot even now--a sign it's memorable. The Lovely Bones, too. What a humdinger. And the Pillars of the Earth line--wow!

Karin Gillespie said...

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins"--Lolita

"My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie." The Lovely Bones

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." The Metamorphosis

Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.-
Charlotte's Web

Susan Cushman said...

Peggy nabbed my favorite, "My wound is geography..." Pat Conroy's Prince of Tides.

And yes, Laura, I loved the opening line of "The Secret Life of Bees," too:

"At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin."

But here are two more (from A Good Blog authors):

"It was the kind of day when even the lost believed." River Jordan in "Saints in Limbo."

"There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniels, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus." Joshilyn Jackson's "gods in Alabama."

River Jordan said...

First lines are the way I determine to purchase a book in the store or not. Love this post and will read it on Clearstory Radio today at 5. Tune in if you like at 107.1fm nashville or at 5.

Thanks for sharing!


Roland D. Yeomans said...

I think my all-time favorite line is from SCARAMOUCHE by Raphael Sabitini :

"He was born with the gift of laughter and the knowledge that the world was mad."

Of course there is that famous line from FRENCH QUARTER NOCTURNE :

"It rained lies and death today."

Ah, never heard of it? It's mine and legendary only in my mind. But one day .... I can dream, Roland

Mindy said...

Thanks for sharing more great opening lines :)

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