Tim’s Top Ten: First Lines

I judge a book by its back cover. If I like the back blurb, I flip to the first line. The lines in this list might oblige anyone to take and read.

“An author’s first line,” said Ruth Kantzer, my first creative writing teacher, “is a contract with the reader.” The following are great contracts. Each grabs the reader by the ear and speaks softly what will follow.

10. “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
–C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952). A line that portrays one of Lewis’s many literary strengths, playful wit.

9. “Mama died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”
–Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942). He can’t remember when his mother died? What’s wrong with him? Oh, I see.

8. “A screaming comes across the sky.
–Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). A postmodern tale about a nightmarish power that controls the post-WWII world. The power intimidates through foreboding death-forces and the mysterious Rocket 00000.

7. “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.
–George Eliot, Middlemarch (1874). The intelligent but disregarded Miss Brooke resembles the author (George Eliot was the pen-name chosen by Mary Anne Evans) in this story about community life in the fictional town of Middlemarch.

6. “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.
–Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays (1970). Didion chose settings beyond good and evil–Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the Mojave Desert–for this novel about the moral emptying of America in the 1960s.

5. “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 (1859). Dickens’s unforgettable first line throws open the doors to his sprawling panorama of the French Revolution.

4. “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.
–Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987). A chilling novel about a female slave returning to Kentucky to claim her children. Voted by New York Times readers in 2006 as the best work of American fiction of the past twenty-five years.

3. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
–George Orwell, 1984 (1949). A broken note in the opening chord of this brilliant dystopia.

2. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
–Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877). Tolstoy’s original title for this classic was Two Marriages. It contrasts the very unhappy Kareninas with Levin and Kitty’s earnest marital life. A superb start to what many believe to be the greatest novel ever written.

1. “Ships at a distance have every man’s hopes aboard.
–Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). A hopeful beginning that ends sadly, but not without Janie Crawford learning “two things”: “They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”


8 thoughts on “Tim’s Top Ten: First Lines

  1. Another favorite of mine: “It was a pleasure to burn.” from Fahrenheit 451.

    Another fun one, not from a book but from a column by Doris Smucker: “I don’t know if it was the laughter or the vomiting that made that night unforgettable, but I look back on it as one of the finest moments of our marriage.” Doesn’t that just make you want to read more?

    • Kay, that one — “It was a pleasure to burn” — was in the running. Great start. –Wow, the Doris Smucker first line is GREAT. It does make me want to read more.

  2. I love the start to the Dawn Treader because not only is it witty, but it is perfectly at the level of its intended audience. Kids understand the horror of having a name like Eustace Scrub.
    I also think “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 housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” should be given a honorable mention.

    • Nick, you’re right — that line deserved honorable mention on merits of how BAD it is! –Are you aware of this contest?
      Here’s a past winner (from 1983): “The camel died quite suddenly on the second day, and Selena fretted sulkily and, buffing her already impeccable nails–not for the first time since the journey began–pondered snidely if this would dissolve into a vignette of minor inconveniences like all the other holidays spent with Basil.” –Gail Cain, San Francisco, California (1983 Winner)

    • Crim, this one was also on my short-list. Love this first line. –Oh, and thanks for the link. Very nice.

  3. Great list, Tim. I’ll add a couple of childhood favorites:

    “Dark spruce forest frowned on either side of the frozen waterway.” And the stage is set for Jack London’s White Fang.

    E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web: “‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”

  4. I keep liking these lists. You should write a list with first words from great novels that nobody knows. I’ll even get you started:

    “Who’s there?”
    “I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of the gods.”

    Bonus points to anyone who can say what these quotes are from without looking.

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