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I struggle with beginning paragraphs whenever I write, most especially the opening line. It’s a compulsion. I gnaw away at it like a beaver with a freshly-felled log, hoping to turn the raw material into the foundation of something solid and enduring. Days can pass while I write, revise, edit, and annotate, drafting and redrafting until the opener is shipshape, but once it is the rest of the story tends to come easily.

Of course, nine times out of ten I finish the manuscript only to realize that the opening paragraph doesn’t work at all with the rest of the story, and wind up cutting it entirely.

It didn’t used to be like this; time was I would simply dump whatever effluvium happened to be percolating in my forebrain out onto the page, only going back to clean up and correct after the rough draft was completed. This changed after I served a stint as a fiction editor for my university’s literary magazine. I quickly found that the opening paragraph of a submission was a great litmus test for the rest of the story; if it wasn’t up to snuff, odds were good the remaining pages weren’t either. It was humbling to realize this applied just as much to my own stories as the anonymous ones regularly deluging our tiny little office.

Any seasoned traveler will tell you that how you begin a journey is crucial, even if you’ve no idea where you’ll end up. So it is with writing. And that first sentence is the lynchpin of the opening paragraph, the coy seductress who coils her finger at the reader and whispers hints of the pleasures that might lie in wait, if only the covers were parted just a little further. There’s an indefinable alchemy to it; you know the moment you read it whether or not the opening line works, even if you cannot quite say why.

All of which is the long way of saying I’ve decided to offer ten of my favorite opening lines, and to discuss, as best I can, why they work for me. These aren’t necessarily from my favorite books, or by my favorite authors, or my Top Ten All-Time Favorite Opening Lines; these are simply lines that happen to stroke my particular literary erogenous zones in just the right ways, both as a reader and a writer, each culled from a novel in my personal library.

In the spirit of fun, I’ve listed them initially sans author or publication information, as something of a challenge to you, the reader. Audience participation, if you like. How many do you recognize, and how well – or badly – do they engage you when you read them free of context?

One quick caveat: All books by TNB contributors, as well as those of my professors and former classmates who’ve gone on to publish, are disqualified for consideration in this essay due to favoritism on my part. I’ve yet to read a book by a TNB contributor that didn’t hook me from the get-go, because you’re all so damn awesome, and this essay is already biased enough as it is.

Here they are then, in (mostly) no particular order. The identity of each and a brief description of why I favor it follows.

1.) “For a man his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.”

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

3.) “In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages.”

4.) “Squire Trelawny, Dr. Livesay, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17— and go back to a time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof.”

5.) “Imagine that you have to break someone’s arm.”

6.) “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”

7.) “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”

8.) “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.”

9.) “The play – for which Briony had designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped onto its side, and lined the collection box in red crépe paper – was written by her in a two day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.”

10.) “Call me Ishmael.”

BONUS LINE: “I was crossing the Belltower’s shadow away from the commons when I ran into Hannah Marshall, her rust-colored Doc Martens crushing the unraked dead leaves underfoot as she stomped across the grass towards me.”


*****


1.) J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace. This novel of post-Apartheid South Africa remains one of the most emotionally devastating books I have ever read, a sparse, trim volume that barely clocks in at 220 pages. The phrase “the problem of sex” leapt out at me right away; the notion of sex as a problem with a quantified solution is a backdoor into the mind of the protagonist, a Capetown professor of modern languages who in the course of those 220 pages discovers just how wrong his presumption is.

2.)  William Gibson, Neuromancer. Possibly my first conscious encounter with cognitive dissonance. It was a dated reference when I first discovered it in 1994, a dead channel during the age of ubiquitous cable TV looking like either static or those damned colored bars, so I had no idea what this might in fact look like, but my imagination was immediately engaged in trying to conjure it.

3.) Patrick Suskind, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. The pairing of “gifted and abominable” here is like a dollop of warm caramel wrapped in dark chocolate for my brain, but I also love the rhythm of this as it uncoils, making the boldfaced claim that the protagonist is a person beyond redemption. I was dubious about the book going in, unsure as to how interesting a story about the world’s greatest sense of smell might be, but after spotting this line, I wound up reading much of it in a single sitting. Loved the film, too.

4.) Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island. A bit longish and unwieldy, but if you’re a nine year-old boy when you first read the book (as I was), you recognize it for what it is: Stevenson’s promise the story contains everything a good pirate yarn should. A perilous sea voyage to an exotic, treasure laden-locale? Check! Grog-soaked, leathery sea dogs? Check! A mention of a sabre wound, and thus the potential for more swashbuckling action and derring-do? Check! Nary a girl in sight? Check!

5.) Hugh Laurie, The Gun Seller. Yes, THAT Hugh Laurie, the one currently starring as the titular protagonist of the TV series House. He published it in 1996, and it’s actually pretty good, a satire of the spy genre that also happens to be a pretty entertaining action/adventure story in its own right. There’s nothing particularly outstanding about that line, but an invitation to contemplate the best manner of inflicting a specific form of grievous bodily harm certainly gets my immediate attention.

6.) Graham Greene, The End of the Affair. This was as a curiosity when I first encountered it. I was already familiar with the story, having taken a date to the Ralph Fiennes/Julianne Moore adaptation, and expected the novel to open with the same line the film does: “This is a diary of hate.” It comes in somewhat perpendicular to the narrative, but I like the existential, musing quality of it, and it sets up nicely the free will vs. divine intervention subtext that runs though the rest of the novel.

7.) John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck is well-remembered for his stories and characters, but I sometimes think his facility with the English language goes overlooked, as readers seem more keen to discuss the underlying social commentaries in his work than anything else. He’s one of the few writers I’ve encountered able to deploy the third-person omniscient POV subtly, often to great affect. This line – the entire first chapter, really – reads almost as the poetry of desolation.

8.) Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep. This is the first line ever narrated by Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s quintessential hard-boiled private eye. Like Steinbeck, I’ve always enjoyed Chandler’s skills as a linguistic stylist. Though he’d previously published several detective stories in the pulp magazines that were later rewritten as Marlowe tales (collected in Trouble is My Business) these are Marlowe’s first true words, and they immediately betray his cynical perspective to the reader.

9.) Ian McEwan, Atonement. It wasn’t until I reached the end of the novel that I understood just how much work this line is doing, and just how clever McEwan is about hiding it. Inside this sentence is everything the reader needs to know about Briony, about her priorities and the choices she as a character will later make; in this one line McEwan lays a foundation that pays off several times throughout the novel, all while describing a child’s creative enthusiasm. That’s skill.

10.) Herman Melville, Moby Dick. This is a small thing, but one that I’ve always enjoyed, and only rarely seen referred to in criticism: through three very selective words Melville establishes his narrator as potentially unreliable, which has colored my perspective of the book both times I read it. This isn’t a declarative statement (“My name is Ishmael”) by any means; it’s the phrasing used by a person with something to hide. I use this line whenever I teach I writing workshop as a lesson in how, with the proper word choice, a writer can say a great deal with minimal effort.

BONUS LINE: Trick question! This is one of mine, from my unpublished first novel. Though I’m not happy with the book overall, I’m rather fond of this bit.

…although, now that I look at it, I can see a few places where it could use a little tinkering. Excuse me, would you?


*****


All right then. These are some of my favorite first lines – now how about yours? Feel free to go with fiction, poetry, film, or even song lyrics – whatever it is that grabs you by the lapels and shakes you whenever you encounter it.

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Matthew Baldwin MATTHEW BALDWIN is a writer, martial artist and all-around misanthrope living in San Diego, California. He's published fiction and poetry in several small literary journals, most of which went out of business soon after. Make of that what you will. He currently holds a fourth-degree black belt in karate, a B.A. from the University of California and an M.F.A. from the University of New Orleans. In his free time he serves as a professional martial arts instructor, working mostly with teenagers. He's currently at work on both a first and second novel, and can be followed/harrassed on Twitter. And please, call him Matt.

70 Responses to “Those Perfect Little Lines”

  1. Ben Loory says:

    i totally got the bonus one!

    that’s cool that hugh laurie wrote a book. i like a lot of opening lines, ones that double as nice little witticism and whatnot, but this is my all-time favorite as an opening line:

    “At three-thirty A.M. on the night of June 5, 1992, the top telepath in the Sol System fell off the map in the offices of Runciter Associates in New York City.”

    that was the first line i ever read by philip k. dick (it’s from ubik), and it was just like someone flicked a switch and a whole other universe started up. it still just makes me unspeakably happy.

  2. Great essay.

    I love the entire first paragraph of Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth. First sentence:

    The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses.

  3. Fine choices, all, Matt. Including yours! I’m always taken w/ Didion’s first lines and Fitzgerald’s.

    • Mary Richert says:

      Agreed on Didion! I am a complete Didion fangirl, a concept I’m sure she would find horrifying.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks, Litsa.

      I’ve never read any Didion, and it’s been a while since I read any Fitzgerald (I presume you mean F.Scott and not Zelda) other than The Great Gatsby. May have to amend both oversights shortly.

  4. Irene Zion says:

    Matt,

    It is physically painful to cut out your favorite line or passage when you finally realize that it just doesn’t fit anymore.

  5. dwoz says:

    Thanks for this!

    Made me go back and read my book lede….

    oy, ouch! what was I thinking?

  6. Dude. The Gun Seller ftw. You know, I went into that the same way I go into most novels by celeb authors (I’m looking at you, James Franco and Ethan Hawke), but it was just crazy good. Hugh Laurie is a bastard like that.

    I was just writing about openings. The beginning of Meets Girl centers around them, in fact. I like to go modern:

    “The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

    I mean, yeah.

    (Shame about the rest of the series.)

    Oh, and

    “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”

    I thought about citing both, but didn’t feel like doing the permissive legwork, and wasn’t sure Fair Use would apply.

    No matter.

    Nice choices. Nice post.

    • Matt says:

      You know, I really question whether or not The Gun Seller actually qualifies as “celebrity fiction” or not. Granted, he was pretty famous in the U.K. for his work in things like A Bit of Fry & Laurie and Blackadder, but he hadn’t yet achieved worldwide recognition yet. Plus, the book isn’t exactly a vanity project; it’s the work of someone intelligent and well-educated who set out to write a satire.

      I know your first reference but not your second – where abouts does it come from, because my curiousity sure is piqued.

  7. Gloria says:

    I got four and seven, of course. Oh, and Moby Dick – but that’s just about the most popular first line ever written in the English language, yeah? I love the variety of these examples. Steinbeck and Swift couldn’t write more differently.

    This was fun. :)

    It’s way too early in the morning for me to think of my favorite opening line. There’ve been so many! And besides, I’ve sold most of my books, so I can’t even go and grab some off the shelf.

    • Matt says:

      Yeah, there were some that I wanted to reference, but either I didn’t have the book any more or I never did to begin with, and the local library was closed. Hence the decision to just pull from the ones on my own shelves.

  8. Joe Daly says:

    What a fun topic for an article! Very nicely done. You immediately brought forth my high school friend, who committed to memory the first line of The Great Gatsby, which he would bust out once a month or so. I wanted to call him out for being pretentious, but I always enjoyed the fuck out of the line, so I never could.

    You’re so right that a first sentence/paragraph is a powerful element of a book. It’s like a doorman- you take a look at him and try to decide if you want to deal with him and go in, or if it just doesn’t look like it’s worth it.

    I’ve only read a couple books from your list, so it was an informative read, too. Nicely done, Matt!

    • Matt says:

      Thanks, Joe. The idea for this one has been kicking around in my head for about eight months now, but I was worried that it might come off as pretentious, like I was showing off my education or something (“ooh, look, he’s read all these foreign books and classics and post-modern literature! The fucker!”). Glad to see the favorable reactions.

      I was —->>>this<<<—- close to including the Gatsby line, but it didn’t quiote make the grade. Mostly, I think because to me it’s more an integral part of the whole paragraph than some of the lines I quote above is. But than, it all comes down to aesthetics anyway, doesn’t it?

      When I was younger, I used to be very forgiving of works that didn’t catch my attention right off the bat. I’d plow all the way through them, hoping to find something, somewhere, that might make it all pay off. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’m less willing to invest my time in something that just isn’t cutting the mustard. Same with movies, or even albums. If track ten is the only good one after nine songs of musical mediocrity, odds are good I won’t hear it.

  9. angela says:

    this is great, matt! i only got Moby Dick and Grapes of Wrath, but they were all inspiring. and the moment you said Hugh Laurie for number 5, i looked at it again, and of course couldn’t help but hear it in House’s voice.

    one of faves:

    “My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.” – Mary Karr, The Liars’ Club

    • Matt says:

      Works pretty well like that, doesn’t it? You can just hear him saying it in his House accent, table full of eager young residents waiting to hear where he’s going with it.

      I dig that Karr line – and several more in that book. To bad I didn’t enjoy the experience of reading it so much.

  10. Greg Olear says:

    Love that you included ATONEMENT. Ian McEwan is stunningly, intimidatingly good at what he does. A novelist of the first order, at the height of his powers. Did you read SATURDAY? Completely different book, but also sublime.

    • Matt says:

      I suspected the inclusion of Atonement would tickle your fancy. And actually, I’m surprised there hasn’t been any blowback, as there’s been some anti-McEwan sentiment expressed on this site in the past. I had a hard time writing praise about that line without giving away anything from the ending, as that is something every reader should be allowed to come to on their own.

      For the moment it’s the only McEwan novel I’ve read. But I’ll add Saturday to the list.

  11. D.R. Haney says:

    How’s this for an attention-grabbing opener?

    “Here I was, doing ninety on the Santa Monica Freeway with a quart of whiskey shoved into my crotch and my dead neighbor in the trunk.”

    That’s from a new novel, by Joseph Mattson, entitledEmpty the Sun, which I picked up last weekend at the West Hollywood Book Fair. Tyson Cornell, who’s familiar to a number of TNBers, is the publisher.

    I’m with you in sweating beginnings, Matt, and I likewise find that the writing comes easily (or at least it tends to come easily) once I’ve nailed the opening. Meanwhile, your bonus line is pretty damned good. Maybe, if you don’t like the book that followed it, you can find a way to recycle the best parts?

    • Matt says:

      Damn. That IS a good line.

      Though, I have to insist, it doesn’t *quite* hold a candle to “It all began with a fuck.” But then, I am biased in that regard.

      That you like that line means a great deal, Duke. I have a love-hate relationship with the book. I wrote it to learn a bit about the form, (until then I’d only written short fiction; the two really have about as much in common as watercolors and oil paints), as the proverbial “bad novel,” hoping to get it out of my system so I could move on to other, bigger things. Turns out I have a lot of affection for the characters, and there’s some language in there that I really, really like; writing it marked a big leap in terms of my prose. It’s currently resting in a drawer, where it’s been for the last eight months. Perhaps this winter I’ll pull it out and see it in a more favorable light.

  12. Cynthia Hawkins says:

    I agree — your bonus line rocks! Surely it can find a home. Some fine examples here. Often I’ll read that whole first section of ATONEMENT whenever I need a little incentive to get going. The whole description of Briony’s room is so beautifully done. Love Graham Greene in general. Coetzee I met once when I was an undergraduate and had no idea at the time that he was this phenomenal writer. Probably just as well because had I admired him then as I do now I surely would have made a jackass of myself (speaking of which, thanks for the Ralph link!).

    • Matt says:

      Thanks, Cynthia. I’ll admit, it’s a bit of writing that’s close to my heart, as are the two fictional characters it contains.

      Atonement is, simply, brilliant, in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. It doesn’t hit you in the face with its intelligence, it seduces you, lovingly and liesurely. I enjoyed the film adaptation, but I don’t think it has quite the same impact the book does, even for someone coming to the story cold.

      I first read Coetzee in graduate school, in a lit class that also introduced me to Peter Carey and Iris Murdoch, among others. He’d already won the Nobel Prize and moved to Australia by that point in time, so there was no chance in my meeting him. I have to say, I haven’t really cared for anything he’s written post-Disgrace. He seems to be repeating himself a lot lately.

      Tangentially, I DID NOT enjoy the adaptation of Disgrace. One of those rare times when John Malkovich is miscast.

  13. I know you don’t like him, but I honestly believe Paul Auster’s opening lines are phenomenal. They never fail to grab me and force me into reading. Even his lesser works, I find, are hard to put down. I can’t never look at the first page without being sucked into the next 50 or 100.

    That’s my problem these days, although I used to find first lines weren’t so tough. I think, though, that I used to do more thinking before writing. Now I just write, then edit edit edit. So the first line doesn’t have that same chance to work its way through the old grey matter.

    I’ve been working on my novel about Korea for about 15 months now. The first line has always been the same, though: “I was drunk when I first heard about Korea.” I think it’s fitting, although obviously not with the weight or mystery of some of the previously discussed lines.

    Also, who can discount “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” and “I first met Dean Moriarty after my wife and I split up.” Classics.

    • Matt says:

      Oh, Paul Auster’s a fine sentancer indeed, it’s just the sense of “Look! Look how clever I am!” that glues them all together I can’t stand. He sits there, as an author, and draws deliberate attention to how good his writing is. That’s just pretentious.

      Yeah, I used to do the write write write then edit edit edit thing. Not because I had everything worked out before I sat down, but because I always had some climactic moment I was enthused about and hurtling towards. Anything else was just getting in the way.

      Dig your first Korea line. Things we encounter during drunk talk so rarely turn out be wise when held to the light of sobriety.

      • Ah, we take such different approaches. I don’t think I ever know where I’m going. I just start writing and see where it takes me. Which has really not worked out well, to be honest. But I’m easily distracted. If I headed towards a certain point I’d get lost.

        • Matt says:

          Oh, I don’t write that way anymore. Nowadays I have a general idea of where I’d like to get to, but I prefer to let the personalities of my characters dictate how I get there. They’ve taken me to some surprising places.

        • I see, that’s probably a good thing. I’m struggling with it this now… whenever I write “organically” (or whatever you want to call it) it ends up aimless and goes nowhere. Whenever I write with an end in mind I give up because my characters want to go nowhere… Hmm.

          Ever since reading this post I’ve been thinking about first lines. I really like the first line of The Big Sleep and Slaughterhouse-five.

  14. Becky Palapala says:

    The American Book Review recently published this, which is fascinating:

    http://www.pantagraph.com/news/article_a125216a-649f-5414-88b5-76a688ea3b6a.html

    It’s fascinating because of the diversity of diction, styles…they rage from the incredibly involved to the utterly simple.

    There’s Holden Caulfied’s opening salvo, which is something like 4 or 5 lines long, and there’s Dickens’ famously dizzying litany of opposites from A Tale of Two Cities.

    But then there’s also Ralph Ellison’s fairly matter-of-fact, “I am an invisible man” from Invisible Man and, of course, Calvino’s statement of the obvious (or is it!), “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler,” from…Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler.

    The last two are among my favorites if for nothing else than their deceptive simplicity in books that are, genuinely, mind-boggling in their complexity. (And in the case of Invisible Man, mind-boggling in length.) Extremely difficult books, in a lot of ways. But the language is simple. I think that’s so cool. It’s master craft to me.

    But I love Holden’s opener, too. So, you know. I think it’s less about what makes a good first line and more about what makes a good first line for any given piece.

    “Call me Ishmael” wins the top spot on the linked list, btw.

    • Matt says:

      I like that list, and that I’ve got three places of overlap with it. There are several on there that I thought about including, like the opener from Huckleberry Finn.

      Thanks for reminding me that it’s been far too long since I read If on a winter’s night a traveler.

  15. Mary Richert says:

    I had a writing teacher who told me, “It seems like you’re just writing your way into it in this first paragraph.” She was correct, of course. Or perhaps I would spend the first few sentences winding up for what I really wanted to say. I still have to fight that and remember to cut to the chase.

    Writing is a bit like a conversation with my in-laws that way. If you don’t get right to the point, then they will run with the first thing you say, and you might not ever get a chance to make your real point.

    • Matt says:

      Yeah, see, that’s the thing: I had these blubbery, overwrought openers that I was totally in love with, unable to see that they were dragging my story down. So I had to learn to be mercilous with the knife, cutting them down to the leanest, meanest first line I can manage, one that gets write to the point and gets to work.

      Your in-laws sound like a conversational challenge.

      • Mary Richert says:

        Yeah, don’t get me wrong. My in-laws are lovely people, but they really teach you to be direct. If I’m not on top of my game when we go over to dinner, I sometimes have to just quietly walk out of the room until the conversation calms down enough for me to jump in again. I’ve long wanted to go in there with a tape recorder and just record the whole conversation. This may or may not happen in the near future. I’m debating about whether or not it will get me kicked out of the family.

  16. jmblaine says:

    I was always partial to
    “Well I’m a West-coast glutton
    one bad mother
    got a rattlesnake suitcase
    under my arm”

    that along with

    “wake up late
    & honey put on your clothes
    & take your credit card
    to the liquor store.”

    always created such an image for me.

    Agreed, skies the color
    of dead television channels
    sets quite the mood.

    • Matt says:

      Ah! What are the sources of those two evocative lines? Tell me, must know!

      • jmblaine says:

        Matt!
        Matt!
        Are you joking?
        I should have added that even if I had never heard
        of W Axl Rose and his sleazy band of
        Hollywood via Indiana heathens
        that I would already know
        what he looked like
        (skinny little cocky red-haired
        dude in Levi’s & a flannel shirt)
        just by reading those lines!

  17. Elizabeth says:

    Love this, and congrats on a wonderful opening line. I know what you mean — I find that even though I might get hopelessly lost when I write a story or novel, if I return to a solid first line, it’s like a reset button.

    Here’s my contribution, just because (for me, anyway) the man never wrote a bad sentence:

    “Upon the half decayed veranda of a small frame house that stood near the edge of a ravine near the town of Winesburg, Ohio, a fat little old man walked nervously up and down.”

    • Matt says:

      Yes – going back to where the journey began can really help get your compass reoriented from time to time, can’t it? When I was struggling through that first novel, I went back to my opening chapter repeatedly.

      Love Sherwood Anderson, though I came to him late, first reading Winesburg, Ohio in grad school.

      And thanks.

  18. Don Mitchell says:

    A couple of years ago, Ruth came to my room and said, You have to read this first sentence:

    “Wooooooo -
    hooooooo what a fall what a soar what a plummet
    what a dash into dark into light what a plunge what a
    glide thud crash what a drop what a rush what a swoop
    what a fright what a mad hushed skirl what a smash
    mush mash-up broke and gashed what a heart in my
    mouth what an end.”

    Ali Smith, “Hotel World.”

    Am I the only Ali Smith admirer here? I hope not.

  19. Joe J. says:

    A screaming comes across the sky. . .

    Best first line ever. :-)

  20. Zara Potts says:

    You know, I don’t actually pay much attention to opening lines. In fact, I can barely remember any to quote. For me, it is the usually the last line that holds the resonance.
    Maybe it’s because a brilliant first line doesn’t guarantee that the rest of the book won’t be shite, so opening lines seem a bit window dressy for me.
    But I guess if I had to quote one it would be: ‘Once upon a time…’

    • Matt says:

      No, it’s not a guarantee at all. I’ve plenty of well-written books that, story-wise, were little more than a camel’s arse. But I do like it when the author at least puts SOME effort into convincing me his book is worth a read.

      Regarding endings….ever have a case where the final line just doesn’t work, and it retroactively ruins the book for you? I sure have.

      • Zara Potts says:

        I think a cover is just as important as a first line to be honest.. More people will buy a book based on how it looks than the opening para.

      • Don Mitchell says:

        Not so much last lines literally, but in the past year or so I’ve read three or four novels where the novelist seems to have gotten weary of telling the story, and just kind of stopped, wrapping it up with some lame ending scene. It’s distressing, when the first 98% of the novel has engaged me.

        I can see how the writer got tired (maybe even bored) but I don’t know why an editor or agent didn’t notice.

  21. “Dawn, or its German equivalent, cannot be far off.”

    -i actually L’ed OL at the opening of the distressingly young(er than me) Tod Wodicka’s fabulously titled All Shall be Well; and All Shall be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall be Well

  22. Top proofreading, Sparshott.

  23. Simon Smithson says:

    Fucking Calvino.

    What an apple-pie-necked son-of-a-bitch.

    He makes me feel so talentless.

    But I digress.

    ‘For three weeks, the young killer actually lived inside the walls of an extraordinary fifteen-room beach house.’

    From James Patterson’s literary masterpiece, Kiss the Girls.

    What other writer would have the bravery to say, fuck you, reader! Here are the important words!’?

    • Matt says:

      Yes. Every time I read Calvino I want to smash my computer, break all my pencils, burn my notebooks, and become a paleontological lab assistant.

      Never read any Patterson. Though Ashley Judd sure looked good in that movie!

  24. I love this lit-nerd stuff Matt.

    This is my favorite first line of all time. At least it must be, cause it’s the only one I can think of offhand. If anyone can get it without Googling, or maybe even with, I owe them one night’s bottomless beer.

    “Here I am up in the window, the indistinguishable head you see listing toward the sun waiting to be watered.”

    • Matt says:

      Well, I’m stumped….no beer for me!

      But fuck, that’s a good line.

      • It is, isn’t it?

        Comes from Stephen Wright’s “Meditations In Green.” His book Going Native is one of my favorites. For some reason, he remains totally obscure, despite how many copies I’ve given out as gifts over the years. Maybe sharing names with the comedian has hurt him. I guess his prose is pretty dense, too.

  25. Crap I am so late to this party Matt and I apologize! I hate not getting Internet access in my room…

    I read this piece two days ago but didn’t want to comment using my phone. I should have just commented using my phone. I feel like I’m making excuses…

    Anyway, I was once told by a history professor in graduate school that we would collect all my first paragraphs of everything I wrote all quarter long and we would read them one day as bad poetry.

    So, yeah, first paragraphs, first lines. Used to be a really big struggle. Now, they’re just, well, a really big struggle.

    I also loved your first line. It was great. Keep writing, man. You know I’m a fan.

    • Matt says:

      Ah, Nick, don’t worry about it. Use your phone if you have to; I don’t mind. We are living IN THE FUTURE, after all.

      Funny about the history professor thing: there was a bit in here about how I could collected all those first paragraphs I’d cut and create a TNB post out of them. Wound up cutting it for length.

      And thanks, man.

  26. Hey, great first line! I look forward to someday reading all the lines that follow!

  27. Marni Grossman says:

    We have opposite problems, Matt. I’m full of good openers but hopeless at coming up with much else.

  28. JSBreukelaar says:

    I’m a collector of opening lines too, not my own unfortunately. It’s something I struggle with! One of my favorites is:
    ‘A Ford—whitened by desert travel until it was almost indistinguishable from the dust-clouds that swirled around it–cam down Izzard’s main street. Like the dust, it came swiftly, erratically, zigzagging the breadth of the roadway.’ That’s Hammett’s Nightmare Town.
    And then there’s the old ‘We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold’ (!!) and John Kennedy Toole’s immortal, ‘A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head’ (A Confederacy of Dunces).
    Wow, so many lines, so little time. I loved seeing that line from William Gibson, who is a master of the openers, I think. This, from his Count Zero: ‘They set a slamhound on Turner’s trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the color of his hair.’
    And yours is a killer. Love the Docs being rust-colored.

  29. Doug Bruns says:

    M – I enjoyed your piece a great deal. I’ve been collecting first lines for years now. I used to play a party game, particularly enjoyed by over-educated middle-class angst-ridden readers, where everyone would contribute a made-up first line and in the mix, the host would insert a “real” first line, that is, one drawn from a book on the shelves. The game was to decide which was the real one. The best part was coming up with the made-up opening sentences.

    In the world of real opening sentences, this is my all-time favorite, a contender, I think, for best first sentence ever:

    “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, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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