“You had me at 'Hello.' ”
A friend of mine once said that first lines of books are like pick-up lines in bars. To a certain extent she's right: First lines and pick-up lines ask that you take a leap of faith and trust that they—either the book or the person—are worth spending some quality time together.
First lines are first impressions. As one of my writing mentors, Lisa Fugard (author of the amazing Skinner's Drift) pointed out, if you're going to introduce something fantastic into your story, your best bet is to do it in the first line, or at least in the first paragraph, when the reader's sense of belief is temporarily suspended. Introduce it later (oh, by the way, my hero is an alien, this story takes place on Mars, the killer just happened to be standing outside the door, she's not my girlfriend, she's just a good friend) and fantastic becomes often becomes simply unbelievable.
(I should point out, that first lines from books rarely, if ever, make good pick up lines. In fact, I suspect that I may have frightened the author M.T. Anderson at BEA when I greeted him with the opening line of his book, Thirsty. Though in my defense, I wasn't trying to pick him up, I'd just slipped into babbling fangirl mode.)
At the risk of stretching my metaphor too far, if opening lines are like pick-up lines, than the introduction to Thirsty might be described as the moody, mysterious poet at the bar. You know there's something off, perhaps even dangerous, and yet you can't resist the dark eyes, and the urge to get to know him better.
“In the spring, there are vampires on the wind.”
What follows is an introduction to a fascinating YA where vampirism is portrayed as a virus, or perhaps, like the onset of puberty, a contagion that is at the same time repellent and irresistible. With Anderson's typically dark humor, the paragraph ends, “My father claims we have more this year because it was a mild winter, but he may be thinking of tent caterpillars.”
Andersen is the author of another of my favorite opening lines, though in contrast to Thirsty, the opening line of his dystopian YA, Feed, is more like running into a bad boy rock star. If you hang out with him, there's a good chance you're going to get into trouble—but hey, he's just bored, not bad. In fact deep down, he's got a heart of gold.
“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”
With this line he introduces the reader to a world where the internet is fed directly into people's brains, where teens are constantly leaving the dinner table to change their clothes because they’re receiving updates on changes in fashion, ignored by their parents who are being fed the news, while toddlers are fed the futuristic equivalent of Barney. Where a trip to the moon is just another disappointment in a teen's search for the next big thrill.
The first line of thriller writer James Rollins' Sandstone is no bad boy; he's all man, dangerous, exciting, as likely to leave you as he is to break your heart (but it'll be a ride to tell your grandchildren about.)
“Harry Masterson would be dead in thirteen minutes. If had known this, he would've smoked his last cigarette down to the filter.”
Sure, there are lots of thrillers that open with the promise of imminent death and destruction, but there's something about the addition of the detail about the cigarette filter. Maybe it's the underlying suggestion that life may be brutish and short, so you better live it on the edge—like the characters in his novels do.
Of course, no discussion of memorable first lines would be complete without mentioning the classic opening to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice—a classic, Cary Grant, George Clooney, totally out of your league, and yet, you can't help lingering at the bar, hoping he'll notice you. After all, a girl can dream.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
What makes this line so powerful is how much information Austen manages to convey with it—the central themes of marriage and economics, and that elusive prey so dear to the heart of all regency romances, the wealthy bachelor. Then there's the fact that Austen opens her book with assumption—albeit in her uniquely ironic observation voice—foreshadowing the flaw that ensnares each of the characters of Pride and Prejudice.
Great first lines, like great pick up lines. are few and far between. Trust me, while researching this blog, I spent a happy afternoon in the local library checking out the first pages of best sellers, classics, and my favorite authors. Lots of good lines, but ones that stick in your head? Not so much. I polled my friends, who, not surprisingly include a number of authors, librarians, and bookworms. They all drew a blank.
I began to think that perhaps I was alone in my fascination with first lines. To wonder if this was even a blog worth writing. Then I got this in an email:
I was chatting with a friend of mine the other day, also a librarian, and she mentioned that one of her favorite first lines was from Island of the Aunts by Eva Ibbotson. It is really two lines, but here they are:
'Kidnapping children is not a good idea. All the same, sometimes it has to be done.'
Excuse me. I have to go. I've just seen a book across a crowded room and I think it's calling my name. . . .