Every writer knows they need to have a really good first line, or hook, to a grab a reader’s attention. Most readers, after being attracted by a book’s cover (remember the old adage: never judge a book by its cover), and after reading the blurb on the back about a paper book or the synopsis for an Ebook, will spend a only few moments reading the first paragraph of a book. And the part of that paragraph that’s most important, that will turn on or turn of a reader, is the first sentence.
Here are some examples of good or even great first lines. Most might be familiar while others not so much.
The Bible: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: “Marley was dead: to begin with.”
War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells: “No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own…”
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs: “I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or any other.”
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury: “The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm.”
Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein: “I always get the shakes before a drop.”
The Gunslinger: The Dark Tower 1 by Stephen King: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”
Divergent by Veronica Roth: “There is one mirror in my house.”
Sky Knights by James Domenighini (me): “Somewhere beneath me people were dying.”
Now, I included myself because I believe that my hook, my first sentence, is as good as any of the rest of these hooks. And if you notice that most of these novels are science fiction, well, I am a science fiction writer. It’s what I love. It’s what I do.
Of course, The Bible isn’t fiction at all. But its beginning is a great first line. And while a Christmas Carol is a ghost story, it also has a great first line. Just as Tarzan of the Apes, which is one of the best adventure stories ever written. It’s first line is also quite good.
Something Wicked This Way Comes is a fantasy and horror story and among the best ever written. And the rest of these novels you should be familiar with.
There are many, many, many great writers out there, most of whom have great first lines. The intent to grab your attention.
What follows the first line is also important. Here is my first line again and some of the first page.
“Somewhere beneath me people were dying. There lifeboat had fallen into the turbulent atmosphere of a gas giant, the planet Gargaphia. Even now they might be suffocating as their air ran out, freezing as their power failed, or watching as their lifeboat’s hull bent inward, crushing under the weight of the planet’s atmosphere.
“My bird patrolled far above the gas giant’s atmosphere, along with five other birds from the Forty-Second Fighter Squadron, searching inside Gargaphia’s shroud for the missing lifeboat. We had searched for two days, all the while knowing that time was running out for the castaways.
“The Search and Rescue boats from out carrier, Soyuz, waited farther out. They lacked the sophisticated sensor modules that had replaced our fighters’ main guns for this mission. Their crews waited with impatience while others probed the atmosphere. Saving lives was their business, their existence, and they waited with dread while we searched for that missing life boat.”
Back to first lines. They’re very important, but they’re also flexible. What I mean by flexible is that you wouldn’t want to copy anyone’s first line, but you could modify a bit to become your own first line. For instance, the beginning of The Bible could be modified a bit to fit a fantasy novel, “In the beginning, the Queen’s kingdom was a paradise.” As far I know, that line doesn’t belong to any book, but it make you wonder what happened to the Queen’s paradise.
Likewise, Dickens’ first line, “Marley was dead: to begin with.” It could become the first line of an adventure story: “The volcano exploded, to begin with.” The reader would want to know what happened next.
It’s okay to borrow a line here or there. There are so many trillions of written lines out there. Stories can be copyrighted, but the individual words in a dictionary are free for all to use.