The magic of first lines in literature.

14 Nov

Throughout my time spent as a writer and a genuine lover of words and literature, I have been told over and over of the crystal importance of the first line. From a fiction summer workshop professor to a news writing professor, I have been told the same thing: The first line of any poem, article, short story, or novel is what stands between your reader picking up a different piece of writing or sitting down to spend the evening engrossed in your words on the page, so you’ve got to make it not just good…but damn good.

I remember the very first time a first line of literature completely pulled me in. It was Christmastime in South Carolina, and instead of playing outside with all the other kids on my block talking about what we hoped to get for Christmas, I was sitting in my room reading the very first line of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenburgs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

I don’t know what it was about this first line that grabbed me, but after I read it, I couldn’t help wondering who the Rosenburgs were and why they had been executed. Maybe it grabbed me because of how the summer was described as “queer” and “sultry,” or maybe even though I didn’t know why the main character, Esther Greenwood, was in New York, I wanted to find out just as much as she did. Or maybe I just liked the way each word in the sentence combined to form the perfect combination of sounds and emotions.

I don’t remember putting down the book that first night, after being completely hooked by the first line. I most likely fell asleep with the book in my hands, only to wake up the next morning and keep on reading. That’s when you know you’ve found an incredible work of literature: when life stops until the last page is turned. To this day, the beginning of The Bell Jar comes to mind when I think of first lines. However, is another first line that has held just as much impact for me as Plath’s words did. Here’s the first line of Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons, which is also an incredibly amazing, though quite depressing read.

“When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy.”

Yes, I warned you it was morbid. However, first lines aren’t exactly supposed to make you squeal with joy. They are supposed to make you think. They are supposed to make you want to stay up late into the night just because you want to know what happens to a character that has entered your heart, though you have told yourself over and over that the character isn’t real. First lines are supposed to cause you to stretch your mind and question your beliefs. If first lines often stated things that we strongly believed in, they wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. It’s the first lines that keep us up at night that are the most powerful. Though we may not openly admit it, we like to be challenged. Being challenged allows us to open our minds to other possibilities, which helps us to grow as people and as a society. It’s the first lines that have you begging for more even after you have turned the last page that hold the most promise. And it’s those gripping first lines that push readers of all ages to come back to literature, again and again. It’s not just enough to read one book and be done with it. We must read them all. We must make each book a part of us, another world waiting to be discovered, another life filled with all new characters and places that we are ready to welcome home.

12 Responses to “The magic of first lines in literature.”

  1. photosfromtheloonybin November 14, 2012 at 7:07 am #

    First lines can definitely make it or break it for me. When I am standing in a book store considering a purchase, I always open the book up to the first page to see if the first line grabs me. It’s amazing what you can tell about a book by how it starts. Great post :).

    • ameliaclaire92 November 15, 2012 at 10:42 pm #

      First lines can make it or break it for me too.

  2. jnine0712 November 14, 2012 at 7:28 am #

    Wow, so very true Amelia. Any book that I have read and kept me coming back for more has had a great first line. You are truly making me want to find another book like that right now and read my heart’s content out. If only life didn’t get in the way right now. Great post and so very true 🙂

    • ameliaclaire92 November 15, 2012 at 10:43 pm #

      The next time you find a book with a great first line, pass along the title! I’m always up for new reads (as if my to-be-read pile isn’t already huge). 🙂

  3. insearchofitall November 14, 2012 at 9:52 am #

    Well said. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Aman November 14, 2012 at 2:27 pm #

    First lines attract a reader as much as a the book cover will attract a reader.. for example, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’.. I have a copy of Dickens’ Tale of two cities, published in 1969.. a very nice cover, pretty old. Great Post!

    • ameliaclaire92 November 15, 2012 at 10:44 pm #

      Very true. I’m drawn to book covers as well. I normally won’t pick up a book if the cover and title both don’t seem intriguing.

  5. Rosie Baillie November 14, 2012 at 3:25 pm #

    Great post, I know for me certainly, whether I buy a book or not depends on how interested I am in the first sentence.

    • ameliaclaire92 November 15, 2012 at 10:45 pm #

      Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you liked the post. 🙂

  6. belasbrightideas November 16, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

    Yes, though first lines can really draw me in, I often don’t go to the first line. I flip somewhere in the manuscript and begin reading. If THAT grabs me, I’m pretty sure I’ll like the book. As for poetry, I’ve only used my first line to sketch out thoughts on whatever it brings up for me. Thanks for the post, Amelia. Good food for thought!


  1. Reflecting on words. « lifeintheblueridges - November 29, 2012

    […] Have you ever come across one of your previous pieces of writing and thought: Did I seriously write that? It’s SO good! That happened to me last night when I came across a blog post I wrote on October the 20th, titled The finding place of my words. As I read my own words, I was amazed. There were certain connections I made on that brisk fall day back in October that still apply to how I feel right now. I don’t know what it is with writers wanting to write about words or the creative process. However, in my case, it provides me with perspective, which is discussed in more detail in my blog post titled, The magic of first lines in literature. […]

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