Love at First Sight: First Lines in Novels

If you've ever fallen deeply in love with someone, you likely remember a lot of "firsts" related to that person:

  • the first time you saw them
  • the first time you spoke with them
  • or the watershed moment of epiphane when it occurred to you that, yes, you had indeed fallen head-over-heels in love with that person, and it suddenly, without warning, seemed as if they were the only human being who existed in the entire world. 

Perhaps you remember other less obvious things:

  • the first time you opened a car door for them
  • the first winter's day with them (and you realized how much you like the way they look in a winter's coat)
  • the first meal shared with them and how you accidentally knocked their drink over because you were nervous (and you tend to get clutsier and even more ill-coordinated than usual when you're nervous)
  • or perhaps you didn't do anything clutsy, but you remembered their mannerisms when they ate: the way they sorted their food, the way they fidgeted with their drink, the way their eyebrows would arc just a little whenever they would take a sip. 

Investing time in reading a novel can be similar to all of this.  We not only remember favorite parts of the novel, but we remember what drew us in.  In many cases, the first sentence of the novel was what did it.  It invaded the inner world of our minds with such a strange and fascinating suddenness that we had to know more.  So we kept reading.  The first page only increased the gravitational pull of that strange suddenness felt in the first sentence, and before we knew it we were hooked.  We were carrying the book around with us everywhere we went: catching a few pages in between bites at dinner, diving in while sitting on the bus or the plane, savoring respites throughout the busy day that allow us to open its pages.  The story consumes us.  We've fallen in love.

So this speaks a warning to writers: give much thought to the opening sentence of your novel.  Personally, if you're having a really hard time thinking of the perfect opening sentence, then come back to it.  Keep writing the story. Perhaps as the ocean gets bigger, the depths of the story will tell you exactly what needs to be floating on the surface in the opening sentence.

Here are a couple opening lines for examples, chosen somewhat arbitrarily (there are so many dang good first lines out there, it's really hard to choose just a few, so I chose these two randomly from a group of great novels):

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife."

...from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, I love the rich tonality.  It's a preview of the luxurious flow of rhythm and wit that Austen perfected in her writings.  It begins the novel with a maxim that begs the question of WHO exactly will be in want of a wife in this story?  It also provides a clever commentary on Austen's times: who exactly decides that a rich man should be in want of a wife?  Is it really the man himself?  Or is it the young women in the neighborhood who gossip about their new rich neighbor?  Or is it the mother of those young women?  As the story progresses we see the wealthy young man in question ambushed like a hapless deer in a hunter's trap - and Jane Austen chronicles every moment of it with her classic wit, elegance, charm, and humor.  Somehow all of that comes across in the first sentence.

"In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains."

...from Farewell to Arms by Earnest Hemingway.  A classic Hemingway sentence.  It gives you the impression that he is allergic to adjectives and has a phobia of any words that end with -ly.  His writing relies more on nouns packed together into sentences like dry thorns in a bramble bush.  Not a lot of flowery-ness, but you feel the prick.  His writing can be like bitter coffee on a morning when you wake before the dawn.  If you're the kind of person who has a sweet-tooth, then Hemingway is hard to eat.  I'm definitely a sweet-tooth kind of person (love anything involving sugar, chocolate, and richly vivid descriptive writing), but there is also an arid dry side to me as well - perhaps the blunt block-headed masculine side that feels comfortable with the simple straight-forward strength of Hemingway's style.  He was a man's man, to be sure: hunted big game, fished big fish at open sea, fought in wars, liked bull-fighting, guns, and adventures.  His simple writing also betrays a disillusioned sadness that filled his life, like many writers of the Lost Generation.  He was a man's man, but he was also depressed and bitter because of the tragedies and heartbreak in his life.  Men often do whatever is necessary to create a hardened layer around their heart when great sorrow befalls them.  This hardness shows in his writing.  I know from experience that depression does NOT make one feel like writing long complex sentences of flowery carefully crafted poetic description. 

Depression depletes the energy until the simplest task seems like a mountain to climb.  Perhaps Hemingway developed his short simplistic prose out of a life plagued with tragedies and heartbreak.  Maybe it had nothing to do with that.  Perhaps he just felt that style of writing wasn't necessary for him to get his point across.

This is all speculation of course, but he did commit suicide, so it is hard not to think that the depression and heaviness of his life shaped his writing.  Regardless of all that, the first line of this novel accomplishes a lot: it makes you wonder who the "we" is referring to, and what "that year" was exactly.  Why does he call it "that year" as if he was remembering something very significant to him?  Who did he live with?  As these questions pop up in our minds we can't help but continue reading to find the answers, even if the prose is dry.  I have one thing to say in Hemingway's defense in regards to his prose.  Like I said in a previous post, Hemingway had the power to write beautifully descriptive passages when he so wished.  Yes, his blunt/bland writing could be as dry and bare as thin logs stacked in a shed for kindling.  Yet he could write a stunningly beautiful passage at the drop of a hat that made all of the dry prose that preceded it come together in a way you couldn't imagine.  The logs made a big fire when Hemingway got around to lighting them.  It always paid off to persevere.  Just gotta push through the dry spells.  It also helps if you like stories of war, fishing, and tragic heartbreak that take place in the early 20th century.  Maybe it's a guy thing. 

Besides looking at a couple first liners, check out this passage in the opening page of Anne Rice's Christ the Lord: the Road to Cana.  The first couple pages can be just as important as the first sentence:

"Who is Christ the Lord?

...Is it possible that Christ the Lord is a carpenter in the town of Nazareth, a man past thirty years of age, and one of a family of carpenters, a family of men and women and children that fill ten rooms of an ancient house, and, that in this winter of no rain, of endless dust, of talk of trouble in Judea, Christ the Lord sleeps in a worn woolen robe, in a room with other men, beside a smoking brazier?  Is it possible that in the room, asleep, he dreams?

Yes, I know it's possible.  I am Christ the Lord.  I know.  What I must know, I know.  And what I must learn, I learn.

And in this skin, I live and sweat and breathe and groan.  My shoulders ache.  My eyes are dry from dreadful rainless days - from the long walks to Sepphoris through the gray fields in which the seeds burn under the dim winter sun because the rains don't come.

I am Christ the Lord."

Wow.  And the book only gets better from there.  It's one of the best books I've read in recent years. 

Anne Rice has more cajones that Hemingway to write a story about Jesus Christ from the first person.  Masculinity doesn't always equate to courage.  Anne Rice has some serious courage going on there.  And I think she actually pulled it off too.  Her Christ the Lord will become an important literary achievement of our time, in my opinion.