I don’t remember the first line of every book I’ve ever read. In fact, when I’m wearing my “reader” hat, I’m usually so eager to get into the story that I fly through those first words with shameful speed.
But, as a “writer” I’ve analyzed first lines to the nth degree. I’ve read articles and books and discussed those first lines with other writers many many times…
“Where’s Papa going with that axe?”
That famous first line from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web always comes up in any discussion of perfect first lines.
There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.
This first line from Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book makes me shiver every time.
How five crows managed to lift a twenty-pound baby boy into the air was beyond Prue, but that was the least of her worries.
This longer first line from Colin Meloy’s Wildwood is one of my recently-discovered favorites.
My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog.
Masterful. Thank you, Ms. DiCamillo.
When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.
The perfect first line of my beloved Secret Garden.
But, as important as that first line is, it is the story that follows that really matters. The first line could be amazing, but if the story it introduces is a shovel of poop, it is a shovel of poop. If the characters are watery and the plot pointless and the dialogue trite and the prose moralizing and the setting ridiculous, then no amazing first line under the sun will make it a success.
I recently read a self-published book with an amazing first line, but the rest of the book was a disaster. I won’t mention the author or the title. But it was not a quality effort (that’s polite code for a shovel of poop).
“Bean has to pee.”
That’s the first line of my new novel, Liar’s Song. I don’t mean to brag, but I think it does everything a first line should. First, it creates a half dozen or more questions in the reader’s mind: Who is speaking the line? How do they know that Bean has to pee? Who is Bean? Why can’t he speak for himself? And why is he named “Bean”? Why can’t Bean just go use the bathroom?
Second, it initiates an immediate emotional or physical response. In this case, a snicker (“Hehe, “pee”!), grimace (“Gross, “pee”!), or perhaps a realization that the reader himself has to pee.
And finally—and most importantly—the questions and the response come together in the reader’s mind, mix together in some mysterious way weaving a spell that fulfill the writer’s greatest wish…
It causes the reader to READ ON!
And hopefully, I will deliver a plot and setting and dialogue and characters that are worthy of my first line and are NOT a shovel of poop.