A Good First Line.

 booksIf you Google “pick-up lines,” you’ll find oodles of suggestions. Funny pick-up lines, cute, clean, cheesy, dirty … They’re all there. One site has a list of 920. It appears that pick-up lines is an extremely popular subject. And for good reason. When you meet (or would like to meet) someone, all he or she has to go on is your appearance and the first few words out of your mouth. So those first words had better be darn good.

The same holds true for books. When we’re in the market for a new book, first we look at the title and cover; then we open up the book and read a few sentences. Some opening lines are better than others.

Here are a few I like:

 

“There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel’s, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus.”

Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson

 

“Afterward, he tried to reduce it to abstract terms, an accident in a world of accidents, the collision of opposing forces—the bumper of his car and the frail scrambling hunched-over form of a dark little man with a wild look in his eye—but he wasn’t very successful.”

The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle

 

“A mile above Oz, the Witch balanced on the wind’s forward edge, as if she were a green fleck of the land itself, flung up and sent wheeling away by the turbulent air.”

Wicked by Gregory Maguire

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“It was said that boys should go on their first sea voyage at the age of ten, but surely this notion was never put forth by anyone’s mother.”

Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman

 

“Though I often looked for one, I finally had to admit that there could be no cure for Paris.”

—The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

 

“Anna was a good wife, mostly.”

Hausfrau: A Novel by Jill Alexander Essbaum

 

“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”

            —Everything I Never Told You: A Novel by Celeste Ng

 

“Wars came early to Shanghai, overtaking each other like the tides that raced up the Yangtze and returned to this gaudy city all the coffins cast adrift from the funeral piers of the Chinese Bund.”

Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard

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“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

 

“When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her.”

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

 

“Shanghai slept early in those days, already settling down at eight o’clock, the blue-green evening sky clearing as the sediments of darkness and hubbub slowly sank to the bottom.”

The Rouge of the North by Eileen Chang

 

Do you like some of these opening lines? Do you have some favorite first sentences to add? I’d love to hear them.

After this distinguished list, I hesitate to add the first sentence of my novel, but here goes:

 

“I was pregnant when Yu-ming went missing.”

Tiger Tail Soup: A Novel of China at War by Nicki Chen

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About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
book reviews, books, historical fiction, Tiger Tail Soup , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

26 comments


  1. Your first line is fantastic and worthy to be added to the list you shared. Tiger Tale Soup doesn’t break its promise while many first lines of books don’t follow through.

    • Thank you, Paddy. First lines need to be written first to get started on a novel. And then at the end they need to be written again to be sure they fit with the whole story.

  2. Great first line, Nicki. I agree with Paddy. It keeps its promise.
    Openers are so hard to write!
    This is one of my favorites among the first lines I’ve read: “Trouble cruised into Tupelo Landing at exactly seven minutes past noon on Wednesday, the third of June, flashing a gold badge and driving a Chevy Impala the color of dirt.” That is from THREE TIMES LUCKY by Sheila Turnage.

    • Thank you, L. Marie, for adding that first line from THREE TIME LUCKY. It certainly paints a picture and leaves me wondering what will happen next. Good choice!

  3. This is very interesting. I typically read the cover jacket for a synopsis rather than the first paragraph although the first line would give an indication of the writing quality. I think the same thing is true of most writing including blog posts. Given time restraints, that opening has to catch you or you pass on it. Sometimes I spend more time on that first line than the rest of the post. Your book was fabulous. I couldn’t put it down and wanted more at the end. That’s a great way to write a book.

    • Thank you so much, Kate.

      I agree. First lines for a blog post are also hard. It’s like choosing the road you want to drive down and also the type of car you’ll drive and the clothes you’ll wear on the trip.

  4. First great lines as well as other lines that resonate with us stay with us for the long haul. Loved “Gods in Alabama” as well as many other Joshilyn Jackson books.

  5. I almost never read the opening line to decide whether to read a book. Instead, I read the back cover or inside flap to see if the subject matter intrigues me. If it does, I open to a random page in the middle of the book and read a paragraph to see whether the writing style appeals.

    My favorite opening line: Marley was dead.

  6. The first line is so important, and you picked excellent intriguing examples. THE MARTIAN is my current favorite (although I’ll refrain from quoting it here, due to the profanity).

    Now I think I’d better rework my welcome page…

    • You piqued my curiosity. I had to go look it up. And, yes, THE MARTIAN does have a good first line.

      Watching “True Detective” last night (which isn’t nearly as good as last season, so I shouldn’t bother), I noted that the f word was used so often that I felt as though the characters (especially one who definitely was f-ed), needed another swear word, something that had more power. I read once that the swear words used by people of a particular culture are chosen based on what they hold dear or sacred or unspeakable. Thus the use of saints and God in a religious culture. When sex was more intimate, I think sexual swear words had more power. Just a thought. I still agree that THE MARTIAN has a good opening line.

  7. Nicki, you have done it again. You got me thinking all sorts of things – what pick-up lines have been used on me and how important that first line of a book is.

    I wrote the first chapter of my book many moons ago, way before my blog ever came into existence. I thought the first chapter was great, but now I think it needs a complete overhaul – especially the first line. It is funny how your writing style and your idea of what is good changes the more time and energy you dedicate to something. I just hope that I can nail a few line like you did.

    And thank you for another wonderful post. I learn so much from you and your writing experiences.

    • I’m flattered to think my writing experience is useful to someone else.

      Some people may be able to write a good first page on their first try. As for me, I was revising it up to the very last minute.

  8. That’s a promising first line, Nicki 🙂 The Paris Wife and Blackbird House are two that I would probably read.

  9. One of the last books I read was Life and Death in Shanghai (I totally recommend it if you haven’t read it). It is the story of an educated and wealthy woman that spent more than 6 years in prison during the Cultural Revolution and when she was finally released she learned that her only daughter had been killed by the red guards. She wrote the book years later, when she had emigrated to the US. The first line says: “The past is forever with me and I remember it all”.

    • That’s a chilling first line, especially when you have some idea what she’s talking about. I keep meaning to read Life and Death in Shanghai. But I need some space between the sad stories about the Cultural Revolution.

      • I can totally understand. I want to read Camp 14, about a guy who escaped from North Korea, but I need a little more time after Life and Death in Shanghai…

  10. What a great post. I have to run off and read the first line of my WIP! Maybe do a bit of revision. 🙂

  11. Pingback: Five Things I Learned from Writing the Initial Draft of My Memoir | Foreign Sanctuary

  12. Cat (talkingofchinese)

    Great post – I particularly love the opening line of the first book. I have now gone and searched for a number of the books mentioned in the post and comments (I am totally someone who chooses a book based on it’s opening line!)

    Some of my favourites:

    “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
    The Catcher in the Rye Author: J.D. Salinger

    “The gunman is useless.”
    The Messenger by Markus Zusak

    “My name is Waiter – not “waiter” in the sense of someone who waits tables in a restaurant, but meaning someone who waits for a future which will never come.”
    Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother by Xinran

    • Thank you for the great first lines. The last two really intrigue me. I wonder why the gunman is useless. I’ll have to look that one up.

      I think first lines are so hard to write because you really have to know what your book is about before you can even start composing them.

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