The Power of First Lines

I have always been a sucker for a powerful first line in a novel. In my own writing, it is something that I tend to put a lot of emphasis on, to the point of often getting “hung up” on getting it just right (to a fault). For me, the first lines (and sometimes the last) of a novel I read are usually the ones that remain with me the longest.

“It was raining the day I buried my wife.”


This is the first line of my novel, St. Charles at Dusk. The quote came to me, very out of the blue, on January 11th, 1999. I remember that date not because I have the memory of a savant, but because I named the file Jan11.doc. My husband and I weren’t married yet. We were nineteen, and in our first apartment together since coming home from college. A few weeks earlier we had brought home our new kitten, Miss Kitty (she is turning thirteen this year).

We had been watching TV when it popped into my head. Now, I have never been good at stopping what I am doing to write something awesome down, and at first  this was no exception. But it continued to nag at me for a few hours until I finally just gave in. I whipped out the slow, old laptop we had, grabbed a blanket, and went to writing. I still have a picture of a very cute Miss Kitty watching me type the first words.

I didn’t have a story, or characters, or anything to go on, just that first line. But that first line took root and grew into something substantial. It became a real labor of love, and that first line, for me, set the tone for the whole novel. This was not a happy story. There was a darkness that followed Oz, and we are introduced to him at the moment of the greatest darkness of his life. Also, I knew that no matter what path the story took or where it led me, I would never remove that line.

Of course, later I changed the line slightly to “It was raining the day I laid my wife to rest,” as people are rarely buried below ground in New Orleans since the city sits at sea level. I like the original line better, but my love for accuracy won out.

“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.”

The opening line from Stephen King’s The Gunslinger had a profound impact on me as both a reader and a writer. With a few simple words, he had introduced the story, pulled you into it full speed, and left you interested in characters you didn’t even know yet. You jump right into the story and you’re already engaged before you read the next sentence. Of course, if you’ve read the whole series, you know that this line has even more meaning than that, but I won’t spoil anything here. You could say that this line is the one that inspired me to start every novel I write with the same attempt to “grab” the reader. Simple, poignant, and powerful.

Other favorites of mine:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”- The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born.”- David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”- Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell


Last Lines are Important, Too

The last line of a book is your very last impression and memory of the story. It can have an impact on how you perceive everything else that happened leading up to it. Like first impressions, it can actually change your opinion. An effective last line ties things together, but it also gives the writer an opportunity to help you decide what the final meaning of things were (or leave you with the right dose of ambiguity to figure it out for yourself).

A perfect example of this is the last line of A Tale of Two Cities, which is also my favorite quote of all time:

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Although Dickens has built up to this moment through the whole novel, it is not until this final  moment that you really realize the  true redemption that Sydney Carton has experienced over the course of the story. This moment is the ultimate culmination, and this quote the perfect illustration of it. You can feel Sydney’s freedom and release in these words. It is said that the person who rises from the bottom to greatness has accomplished far more than someone who has always achieved it.  It invokes a call to examine our own decisions. These are the words that I will have inscribed on my own tombstone, although it remains to be seen whether I will have done anything worthy of them.


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