Beginnings: First Lines in Literature

I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings, first lines in literature. Which ones are satisfying and what makes them so? And others, admired by all, that still just leave me cold. My friend Susan and I walk around Lake Merritt every day and talk about this. Susan is writing a novel, and we are having , uhh, differences of opinion on the subject of first lines. There is a bunch of material on the internet about beginnings. Lists of the 100 best first lines in fiction. Advice to writers about how to construct a first line. Stuff like that.

Since I’m not a creative writer, I can’t dispense writing tips with any authority. As a literary agent though, I have to take beginnings seriously. For me the  first line is the most important sentence in the book. Editors are very busy people and  receive stacks of manuscripts every day. If they get turned off by a clumsy first line, they are likely to cast a cold eye on the rest of the manuscript.

So here are a few of my random thoughts on this subject focusing on some illustrious examples.

“Call me Ishmael.” –  Moby Dick by Herman Melville

 This first line is always at the top of the list. The most famous first line in all of literature. So what’s so great about it, anyway? I thought about that today and decided that it was overrated, that it is one of those things that people  think is great because everybody else thinks it’s great. It’s catchy. It’s different. But why would it lead me to read the rest of the book?  What if I wrote a book that began: “My name’s Andy”? I don’t think it would make the 100 best  list of anything. Why didn’t Melville start with something like: “Ishmael’s my name. Whales are my game.”? Think about it.  Tells a whole lot more about the story. It really is a better lead, —  wouldn’t you say?

But stay with me on this. Let’s  dig a little deeper. Here is the second line in Moby Dick .“Some years ago–never mind how long precisely –having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.” Wow! Now that’s writing. Here we have a book that does more than tell a story. It has the boldness to tackle THE BIG QUESTION;  man’s struggle for truth in the face of an indifferent and inscrutable universe. I mean, duh! We are not in “chick lit” territory here. And this second line —- what would the critics call it? Understatement? Ironic foreshadowing? Because whatever this book is going to be about, you know it isn’t going to be about sailing a little to see the watery part of the world. Magnificent!

***

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” —   The Bible  by God  (or was it King James? Or was it The Gideons?)

 

 

This is pretty good as far as beginnings go. I’m trying to think of a better one. The only thing I can come up with  as an alternative is: “Call me Yahweh”. And that really  doesn’t work as well. But when we think of the Bible as literature, we really think of the King James Version which, as the learned biblical exegetes will tell you, is a triumph of form over substance. Not an accurate translation at all.

Here is a literal translation of  The Book of Genesis  from the Young Literal Translation Bible:

“In the beginning of God’s preparing the heavens and the earth –the earth hath existed waste and void, and darkness is on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God fluttering on the face of the waters.”

Not exactly something you expect to hear from  the deep, rich voice of James Earl Jones. And can you imagine Michelangelo’s God in the Sistine Chapel with little yellow and black butterfly wings  “fluttering” on the face of the waters? I’ll stick with King James, thank you very much.

***

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness”.  — Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

 

This famous beginning has really become a kind of joke, a metaphor for bad first lines. Just mention it at a cocktail party of literary snoots, and you will hear uncontrollable guffaws and  belly laughs around the room. Honestly, I don’t think this is such a bad first line.  Maybe a little overwritten with some murky syntax; maybe a little bloated; maybe a little attenuated by the author’s sense of the of his own unmerited importance. But otherwise, not bad.    It sets up the scene pretty well. The reader really has a sense of where he is. And it gives us a pretty robust  foreboding of what will follow.  Now let’s compare it to this famous first line:

“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from the swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

 I bet you can’t name that one.  It’s Finnegans Wake, you moron!   I bet you can’t tell me what it means. I bet Thomas F**king Pynchon couldn’t tell me  what it means.  Try dropping that first line at the literary cocktail party. No snarky snickers with this one. The room will be silenced by the crushing weight of your gravitas.  And you might as well forget about your designs on that sexy assistant editor  from Knopf  wearing  the black dress standing by the sushi platter. Because tonight   you’ll be going home alone to the solitude of your bedroom,  Bub.

***

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” — The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

 

Oh yes. This is really sweet. I bet every modern writer has wished they could have thought of this beginning. And I suspect that many of them think of it still when they sit down staring at their blank page ready to begin  their novel. By the way, gentle reader, if you know of any beginnings by great modern writers that are clearly derivative of this masterpiece, can you share it with other readers of this blog?

***

“In the second century of the Christian Aera, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. —  The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon

 

This is my favorite. I won’t sully Gibbon’s gorgeous beginning with an impertinent comment. Gibbon’s language is commanding, lofty, elegant, and confident. Worthy of a work of such grandeur.   What is even more remarkable is that this level of writing continues over six volumes and 3000 pages. And look at the vocabulary, the syntax, the voice and the cadence. It is the quintessence of perfection. It has the faultless precision of Mozart and the epic splendor of Wagner.   I am in awe!

I’m going to leave this now.  But I don’t want this to be the last line. I would really like you readers to weigh in with your favorite first lines and why you love them.

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16 Responses to “Beginnings: First Lines in Literature”

  1. Pat Bracewell Says:

    Hi Andy. I enjoyed this very much. I agree that first sentences are crucial as well as fascinating to read and to compare. One of my favorites is from Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. “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.” I think it’s the rhythm and the cadence that grab me, as well as the fact that I am immediately placed in a landscape that I can visualize.

  2. Mike Lipsey Says:

    “Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns. “I can get your pieces probably by tomorrow night. I can get you, probably, six pieces. Tomorrow night. In a week or so, maybe ten days, another dozen. I got a guy coming in with at least ten of them but I already talk to another guy about four of them and he’s, you know, expecting them. He’s got something to do.”

    The Friends of Eddie Coyle is George V. Higgins masterpiece on the doomed life of a small-time gangster, told almost entirely in dialogue, with very little description. The first lines create a character and bring you right into the action. If I wrote fiction, this is what I would shoot for.

  3. Peter R-G Says:

    I just love this opening line, from Lost Horizon by James Hilton:

    “Cigars had burned low, and we were beginning to sample the disillusionment that usually afflicts old school friends who meet again as men and find themselves with less in common than they used to think.”

  4. Jeff Ambroziak Says:

    Very nicely done Andy. Strangely, there is rarely much thought given to great closing lines. Was there ever a better last line than is found in A River Runs Through It? To wit:

    “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

    I am haunted by waters.”

  5. richard kennedy Says:

    Melville, ‘White Jacket’ – or the world in a man-of-war, 1850

    This was written just before Moby Dick. “It was not a very white jacket, but white enough, in all conscience, as the sequel will show. The way I came by it was this.”

    A great sea-going book, wonderful detail, O’Brian could learn from it.

    (to ed., very in italics)

  6. J. Craig Hill Says:

    Nice article, Andy, but what’s with the Pynchon bashing? You can’t read two pages of Pynchon without tripping over a great line or two and smashing your soon-to-be-bloody face on the floor. Pick a book of his at random, open to a random page, pick a random paragraph and voila! Bob’s your uncle.

    As an experiment I opened The Crying of Lot 49 to page 67.

    “I didn’t think people invented any more,” said Oedipa, sensing this would goad him. “I mean, who’s there been, really, since Thomas Edison? Isn’t it all teamwork now?” Bloody Chiclitz, in his welcoming speech this morning, had stressed teamwork.

    But I digress. Back to the issue of opening lines. I like “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” from Murphy and “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” from Pride and Prejudice, but so does everyone else.

    One of my favorites that gets little attention is “They’re out there.
    Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them.” from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

    Keep up the good work.

  7. Alan Rinzler Says:

    “We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred mils an hour … And a voice was screaming: ‘Holy Jesus!’ what are these goddamn animals?’ ”
    — Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

  8. Jerome Says:

    Is genre fiction allowed? I always liked the opening line from William Gibson’s Neuromancer:

    “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

  9. William Davenport Says:

    I vote for Dickens — first sentence and last.

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

    It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

  10. Joseph Garnier Says:

    Opening line from Leo Tolstoy, “Anna Karenina” – “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

    Closing line from Honore de Balzac, “Lost By A Laugh” – “‘There is nothing more horrible than the rebellion of a sheep,’ said de Marsey.”

  11. TonyC Says:

    Sorry I didn’t read the entire article I lost interest when I realised
    You did not understand the opening line of Moby dick, not surprising the book has not really been understood since 1851.
    You did what most do you take a surface detail and run headlong in the wrong direction never understanding you had overrun the truth long before you had even started.

    Call me Ishmael (IS THE LINE)
    NOT – They call me Ishmael
    NOT (as you inferred) My name is Ishmael
    Not Ishmael’s my name. Whales are my game
    sorry for the shouting but it was phased very very carefully

    The line is the key to begin to understanding the book, it tells you how to read the book and get it, in the opening 2 seconds.
    Why
    Because he is NOT Ishmael, and he never says he is he just says to call him that.
    Quote (bible)
    He will be a wild donkey of a man;
    his hand will be against everyone
    and everyone’s hand against him,
    and he will live in hostility
        toward all his brothers.”……

    Who does this sound like in the book? you have your first and only clue to read the book from the correct prospective.

    Why is the book touted so highly if it is so completely misunderstood??
    People even when they don’t understand why , sence the underlining presence of truth.
    The fact that no one understands it does not diminish it standing, truth is simple and never diminished by lack of understanding , it is likely one of the best books ever written, about a subject universally almost never understood.

    Did I work this out , not even close, I had to read this guy (a lot) to understand that he was the first to spot the White Whale in almost 200 years.( and no I have absolutely not affiliation, or agenda other than truth)
    http://www.wisefoolpress.com

  12. A Word or More about Ledes from the Blog of agent Andy Ross Says:

    […] Want to know more? Here’s the link: https://andyrossagency.wordpress.com/2010/04/25/beginnings-first-lines-in-literature/ […]

  13. Cricket Cole Says:

    Ah… someone got to the “Ishmael” lecture before I could. But yes – he’s not saying his name is Ishmael, at all. And therein lies the key to the whole book.

    I read it for the first time and ten, and did not know this – I thought it was just a rollicking good, if sometimes somewhat dense, sea yarn. By the time I re-read it five years later, my father had explained Ishmael, and a few other references to me, and so the book I read than was a somewhat different one.

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