A Novel’s First Sentences

By Megan DiMaria

I’ll say it up front: I’m a real sucker for a good first sentence in a novel. I may read on if the sentence is ho-hum, but I’ll read more eagerly if the first sentence pulls me into the story.

Like many readers I’ll peruse the books on a shelf and pick up novels by authors I’ve previously enjoyed or select a book whose title or cover catches my eye. I’ll flip it over and read the back cover copy and then turn to the first page. Reading the first lines of a novel is like going out on a blind date: I don’t know what to expect, but I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised, swept off my feet, and fall madly in love.

Some people contend that the most difficult sentences to write in a novel are the first ones. After all, they are the hook that draws people in. My favorite first sentences are the ones that make me ask, “what??” —the lines that peak my curiosity and leave me panting for more. Please don’t give me a weather report or tell me what the character looks like. I want to read a provocative statement or a question that has me hungering for an answer.

Of course there are some first lines from bestselling authors that are so boring I want to toss the book across the room, but then because it was written by a bestselling author, I read on. After all, their books sell, and they could probably post their grocery list on the first page and people would read on. However, for the rest of us authors, we need to give our readers some lines that will keep them engaged.

Here are a few of my favorite first lines:

In the moments before, she laid a hand on his arm. “No matter what,” she said, giving him a look, “you cannot stop.”
Mercy by Jodi Picoult

A grieving woman, I’ve decided, is like a crème brulee: she begins in a liquid state, endures a period of searing heat, and eventually develops a scablike crust.
Doesn’t She Look Natural by Angela Hunt

I watched her for three days, sitting by myself in the park underneath an elm tree, beside an empty fountain with a series of uneaten sandwiches in my lap and my purse at my side.
Little Earthquakes by Jennifer Weiner

I sneaked down to the boat that night to say this couldn’t happen anymore.
Healing Stones by Nancy Rue

I Twittered a request for favorite first lines, and novelist Lena Nelson Dooley sent me a few:
The click of a rifle being cocked stopped J. L. in his tracks.
Golden Dreams by Kathleen Yapp

On the night of the first murder, a full moon sailed over middle Georgia.
But why Shoot the Magistrate by Patricia Sprinkle

Literary Agent Rachelle Gardner also responded to my Twitter plea for favorite first lines. She teaches a workshop on writing the first page, and here are some sample first pages that she shares with students:

I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

From my first breath in this world, all I wanted was a good set of lungs and the air to fill them with—given circumstances, you might presume, for an American baby of the twentieth century. Think about your own first gasp: a shocking wind roweling so easily down your throat, and you still slipping around in the doctor’s hands. How you yowled! Not a thing on your mind but breakfast, and that was on the way.
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

I was six years old the first time I disappeared.
Vanishing Acts by Jodi Picoult

In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.
A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean

I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C S Lewis.

I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Harbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign.
The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

It was a pleasure to burn.
Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

What are you thoughts on first lines? Which are your favorites?

For more info: The American Book Review’s list of the 100 best first lines from novels.

megan dimaria

Megan DiMaria is an author and speaker who enjoys cheering on other writers. One of her speaking presentations is an in-depth study designed to encourage, refresh, and minister to writers as they pursue the journey of publication. She’d love to join to your next writer’s retreat and share the (hard-earned!) wisdom and encouragement she’s accumulated on her own writing journey.

Megan is an active member of several writers groups and is the author of two women’s fiction novels, Searching for Spice and Out of Her Hands. Visit Megan online at her blog at http://www.megandimaria.blogspot.com/

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