Friday, June 1, 2012

What's In a Novel's First Line?

First lines are everything.

Well, not really. That statement is a bit dramatic. But that’s what I love about first lines in novels. They’re dramatic. As a writer and an obsessive compulsive, I love dissecting first lines, looking for a connection to the forthcoming text, searching for clues into what the novel has in store.

Example. Here’s the first line of a novel I read recently called “A Tomb on the Periphery” by John Domini: “It wasn’t midnight yet, to judge from the moonlight, the clarity it gave to the exposed skeleton.”

Midnight, moonlight, clarity, an exposed skeleton... this is one mysterious first line. It raises so many questions: Who is the person making this observation? What are they doing around a skeleton? Whose skeleton is it? How did the owner of said skeleton perish? Starting off the novel starts just before midnight is an interesting choice, and the image of the moonlight giving clarity is particularly telling. There will be darkness in this tale, oh yes, but also clarity… perhaps.

I just finished up a hefty novel called “The Blind Assassin” from award-winning author Margaret Atwood. It starts off like this: “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.” Another excellent opener. The reader is primed to enter an era of war. It’s likely going to be an older war, because it seems wars don’t “end” these days, at least not on any specific day. Amidst this violence, the narrator is clearly struggling from severe personal distress. Someone’s sister has just died, and not in her sleep. She drove her car off a fucking bridge. The structure of the sentence reveals that the sister had some control over the end of her life. There’s no passive verb here. Atwood didn’t write: “my sister Laura was in a car accident.” If it is indeed a suicide, driving a car off a bridge sounds like a strangely bold way to go. The narrator’s sister didn’t just down a handful of sleeping pills with a glass of gin. She met her fate head on.

The first line of my forthcoming novel “Broken Bones” is cropped down even more than these two examples. It starts, simply: “It was dark.” Granted, that first line doesn’t tell a whole lot, but, if that’s kind of what I was going for. The novel is about a man regaining his consciousness and sanity after a prolonged period without food or sleep. The first paragraph goes on to further detail his semi-conscious state: “I blinked my eyes. Beams of streetlights sliced into the room from between blinds beside me. I could make out some blankets, a desk and a lamp with a long sloping shade. I blinked again. A door, to my right.” One of the reoccurring themes in the novel is the frailty of perception. The narrator is nearly dead and certainly incapacitated, so it was a conscious decision to start the novel with the narrator’s simplest observation. When you boil it all down, visual perception is based on the presence of light, and here the narrator is surrounded by darkness. “It was dark” is to this narrator what “Cogito ergo sum” is to Descartes: the starting point.

If you’ll indulge me, post the first line of the novel you’re reading. I think it would be interesting to read them and see what they tell, or don’t tell, about the novel as a whole.


  1. "Our mother performed in starlight." - Swamplandia!

  2. When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

  3. Shelby, are you liking that novel? I'm interested in it, but haven't bought it yet.

    And James, Tolkein's style is so playful and witty. That first line is excellent, and I actually laughed when I read it because it's so great.

  4. "Captain Sean O'Sullivan lifted the blackout curtain." - Armageddon: A Novel of Berlin

  5. Isaac, thanks, really. I'm glad my publisher called my attention to your blog. I hope you enjoy the rest of the book, & I'll be keeping an eye out for BROKEN BONES.
    Also, let me recommend a white wine w/ remarkable depth & flavor, from the region around Naples. Falanghina, look for it.

  6. John, I really enjoyed the book. You did a great job capturing the feel of Naples. I agree, falanghina is a great wine, and it just screams southern Italy to me. Such unique flavors. Cheers!