Crafting the first lines of a novel

Crafting the first lines of a novel

Crafting the first lines of a novel

‘First sentences are doors to worlds.’ – Ursula Le Guin

Every good writer knows that the first lines of a book are of crucial importance. They must hook the reader’s attention and make him or her want to read on. They need to set the tone and give a feel for the novel.

Here are some examples of famous first lines in literature. These writers do such a fantastic job of drawing you in; in just a few words they convey so much meaning.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with. This is certainly a beautiful country! In all England, I do not believe that I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society. A perfect misanthropist’s heaven: and Mr. Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us. 

– Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

Ashley Hilary Akbar Pelham-Martyn was born in a camp near the crest of a pass in the Himalayas, and subsequently christened in a patent canvas bucket. 

– MM Kaye, The Far Pavilions

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

– George Orwell, 1984


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

– Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle 

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.

– Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

I wonder how easily these powerful beginnings came to the authors. It is perfectly possible for a writer, weighed down by the importance of opening lines, to get in a tangle, wrestling with writer’s block, agonising over each word. Some writers craft the first sentences of the book last, once they have written everything else. Some rewrite them over and over.

I confess that I have never struggled with this aspect of writing a novel. Once I have done my research and planning, once I know the story, the characters, the themes and the tone, I sit down and write, and I trust in what flows. I follow the philosophy of the poet Allen Ginsberg: ‘First thought, best thought.’

In The Echoes of Love, I wanted to establish the sense of mystery in the novel from the outset:

The clock struck midnight just as Venetia went past the grand eighteenth-century mirror hanging over the mantel in the hall. Instinctively she gazed into it and her heart skipped a beat. In the firelight she noticed he was there again, an almost illusory figure, leaning against the wall at the far end of the shadowy room, steady eyes intense, watching her from behind his black mask. An illusory figure indeed, because when Venetia turned around, he was gone.

The Echoes of Love

Burning Embers begins by establishing the sadness and isolation of the heroine, Coral:

Coral Sinclair was twenty-five, and this should have been her wedding night. Instead, she watched a full moon sweep the Indian Ocean with silvery beams as a silent ship carried her through the night, its path untroubled by the rolling swell.

In Masquerade, I plunge the reader into the love story, with the first meeting of the heroine and hero, and I use the opening lines to foreshadow the story to come:

Luz set eyes on him for the first time from her seat on Zeyna’s back as the fine white Arab mare stepped down the narrow path from the cliff that led to the beach. He was sitting on the edge of the track, leaning nonchalantly against a wild carob tree, watching her while chewing on a sprig of heather. As she drew nearer, she met his steady gaze, spirited and wild. At that moment she had no idea this man would have the power to change her world and create such havoc in her heart, that she would emerge from the experience a different person. Fate had not yet lit up the winding pathway of her life nor the echoes of history along it, but now, in front of this stranger, a disturbing awareness leapt into flame deep inside her and began to flicker intensely. Without thinking, she tugged on Zeyna’s reins to slow the mare down.

What will my next first lines be, for my next novel? I do not know yet, but I know that I am very much looking forward to writing them.


Picture credit: GaudiLab/Shutterstock.

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