Opening Lines

I’ve been reading Interview with the Vampire by Ann Rice, and while the voice is amazingly consistent, the characters are interesting, and the story itself captivating, it is the first line that really grabbed my attention.

First lines should do just that- grab your attention. Jane Austen opens Pride and Prejudice with: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”  It’s funny. It’s startling. It’s perceptive in an unfamiliar way. This one line also drops the reader right into the central conflict of the book- marriage and the social pressures of the family’s society.

The opening line of “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver also drops us into the conflict of the story and tells us a great deal about the character of the husband as well: “This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.” Immediately we know the husband sees his wife’s friend as just a blind man, and the style of the comment sounds like a practical, down-to-earth sort of guy. He doesn’t sound thrilled about the situation, either. What will happen here?

Fahrenheit 451  starts out, “It was a pleasure to burn.” This succinct statement sets the tone for the whole story, and again, in introduces one of the main themes.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone lands us squarely in the perspective of the Dursleys (their perspective is instrumental to the story) and it also sets the whimsical tone for  the novel: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

I like these opening lines because they immediately introduce us to an important element of the world and sometimes to the world itself. We’re dropped right into the story, as if we fell through a trap-door and right into someone’s life. These lines become iconic of their stories because they immediately shape our expectations while setting the story in motion. Sometimes they use a profound thought, a startling statement, a revelation of character, or an important, telling action. Whatever they use to do it, they capture the world of the story.

Here’s how Ann Rice does it:

“I see…” said the vampire thoughtfully, and slowly he walked across the room towards the window.

I love this line. I’m listening to this novel on audiobook, and I started it over three times just to listen to the first few sentences again. This first sentence plunges the reader into a world where vampires walk towards windows. It’s a fairly normal sentence, except the word “vampire” dangles there, glittering like an unexpected gem. What world is this, where vampires exist along with the rest of us? Who is with him, and why? What does he “see”? Whatever it is, surely he can’t see it the way humans see it. These questions almost leap at the reader from the page, and they draw us onward.

These books have taught me how important first lines are (as are first paragraphs, first pages, and first chapters). My own first line for my novel is currently this:

“Years had passed since the neighbors had been inside the dingy old house on the corner.”

(I’m not sure if I’m satisfied with it or not, but I plan to spend a few hours working over my first page in a few days, so I guess we’ll see. )

Do you have a first line for a novel or story of yours? What do you like about it? Why are you using that line, specifically, to start your story?

7 thoughts on “Opening Lines

  1. I’ve never read a book by Ann Rice, but I probably should. Great choice of other noteworthy first sentences. Getting a reader’s attention immediately is important. Good luck perfecting your first page!

  2. I think first lines are immensely important even though I don’t typically remember them after I’ve read them. It’s that opening line that draws me in and sets my mood for acceptance of whether or not I want to read a novel–not always a good way to approach reading, but when I pick up a book in the store and read that first line it says something to me as to whether or not I should go on.

    My current work that hangs in limbo starts with a line of dialogue:
    “What are you doing?” Della muttered as she propped herself on one elbow.

    I’m not sure about how effective this is, but my thought is that because a question is raised a reader might want to continue to see what Della’s husband is doing.

    I saw your conversation thread on Linked In and thought I’d check out your blog. Looks interesting. Two of mine are listed below.

    Tossing It Out (My eclectic kind of writer blog)

    Wrote By Rote (a blog about memoir writing)

    Check them out and let me know what you think.


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