what makes a grabby first line?

by Nan Lundeen

Whether writers of poetry or prose, one challenge grins at us like the Cheshire Cat—now you see it now you don’t—the arresting first line.

What makes a line that’s memorable in the best of times and the worst of times?

Jane Austen launches Pride and Prejudice with a summary sort of line that also hints to the reader of her acerbic wit to come: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Sometimes the quirky suffices. For instance, “Bird-watching can be dog-eat-dog.” Who could resist reading that? The profile of a bird watcher extraordinaire by Karen Uhlenhuth was published in the Kansas City Star Magazine and compiled in an anthology of the best American sports writing of 1992.

I’m a huge fan of the late Robert B. Parker. Here’s his first line from Small Vices: “The last time I saw Rita Fiore she’d been an assistant DA with red hair, first-rate hips, and more attitude than an armadillo.”

A scene can entice you as in the first phrase of Maxine Kumin’s poem “Cross-Country Skiing.”

I love to be lured under the outstretched wings

of hemlocks heavily snowed upon, . . .

And what of a simple, rhythmic line demanding attention such as Longfellow’s, “Listen, my children, and you shall hear…”

On a dark and stormy night particularly, a spot of humor can reel a reader in, as in Amy Tan’s memoir that begins, “Soon after my first book was published, I found myself often confronted with the subject of my mortality.”

OK, I guess that qualifies toward a curiosity quotient, which I confess is my favorite lead into anything. Another example that rings my curiosity bell—George Orwell’s ” It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

In the Amy Tan example, humor enters with her next sentences: “I remember being asked by a young woman what I did for a living. ‘I’m an author,’ I said with proud new authority.

“‘A contemporary author?’ she wanted to know.”

Perusing first lines, I came upon one that tops my list. Holden Caulfield begins straight off with, “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.”

It’s the voice. And that may be the bottom line for me in exploring what makes a great first line. Whether it’s exposition or first-person or whatever, it’s voice that hooks me. I realize that here’s a writer I’d like to sit with awhile.

What’s your favorite first line?

The author is grateful to the SCWW Quill that first published this column.

2 thoughts on “what makes a grabby first line?”

  1. “Last night I dreamed I was at Mandalay again” is one of the most memorable in literature. Voice and mystery. Thanks for helping me get those firsts right!

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