I came across the American Book Review’s list of the 100 Best First Lines from Novels. Naturally, such a list can’t please everyone, if indeed anyone, but I don’t know how some of those fairly high on the list got there. Further, why is the 1st Baron Lytton’s infamous “dark and stormy night” on the list at all, let alone at number 22? Ah, well. That’s just what happens when I’m not consulted in such important matters.
I’ve got a couple of proposals of my own that were left off the list. We’ll get to those shortly, and I’ll look forward to seeing your thoughts and suggestions in the comments.
A good first line isn’t crucial. If the story picks up after that, it can survive a mediocre beginning. It’s all a matter of the tone a writer wishes to set for his story. But it’s so much easier to snare a reader with an introduction calculated to be intriguing. That’s always been useful, but in these days of Twitter and Internet-induced ADD it’s becoming increasingly important. Readers permit a writer fewer and fewer characters (not words, not paragraphs: characters) to say something interesting and lead them to the next set of characters. A writer, for his own sake, should quickly set a hook into the reader’s brain and drag him into the story.
Now, for my suggestions for the list. Perhaps neither was considered literary enough to be included, but they do their job beautifully:
“What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant? That she loved Mozart and Bach, the Beatles, and me?”
— Erich Segal, Love Story
“He’d tried. God knew Jor-El had tried. But the end would come sooner even than he had thought. Probably before the sky over Kryptonopolis turned red with daylight one more time. Only a superman could finish pounding together the family-sized starcraft before stresses at the core of the planet splattered Krypton across the galaxy.”
– Elliot S. Maggin, Superman: Last Son of Krypton
(For what it’s worth, I believe Maggin is one of the most underrated writers of our day. That’s what happens when you start in comic books, but his prose and plotting are every bit as good as Arthur C. Clarke’s.)
Your turn: hit the comments.