Friday Speak Out!: Memorable First Lines

Friday, January 24, 2020
by June Trop

Horns were honking at my double-parked car, my two-year-old was pulling at my skirt, and the bookstore was overheated while I was standing in the aisle desperate to find a book for next week’s train trip. How fast could I pick something? Aside from glancing at the covers, I had enough time to read only the first few lines before making my decision.

Far-fetched you think? Well, maybe, but the fact is most people choose a book within the first few minutes of opening it. So, an author’s first line had better intrigue the reader.

Remember these classic first lines: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” (A Tale of Two Cities), “Call me Ishmael” (Moby Dick), and “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (Anna Karenina)?

And how about these modern examples: “When I was little, I would think of ways to kill my daddy” (Kaye Gibbons’s Ellen Foster) and “The horror was in the waiting—the unknown, the insomnia, the ulcers” (John Grisham’s Gray Mountain)? Here are the lines I used to start my own novel, The Deadliest Thief: “I stood there as if I’d been punched in the chest. The knocking was so frantic that I bolted of my study, tore across the atrium to the entrance of our townhouse, and opened the door.”

I’ve been collecting impressive first lines for years. I write each one on an index card with the title and author and then sort the cards into categories. Is this starter magical, ironic, scary, or humorous? Does it express a feeling I’ve had, perhaps a shameful or fearful one? In other words, what makes that starter riveting? Is that first line an imaginative description of the setting, a narration in which the reader learns about a problem, or the hint of conflict embedded in a piece of dialogue? Categorize enough of them and you’ll get a sense of what kinds of starters work for you as a reader as well as a writer.

Okay. So, you’re not about to write a novel or start a collection of first lines, but still, paying attention to them might help you figure out what you’re looking for when that adorable two-year old is pulling on your skirt and the parking enforcer is about to ticket your car. How would you characterize the first lines of The Deadliest Thief? What kind of novel would you then expect?

* * *
June Trop is the author of the Miriam bat Isaac Mystery Series set in first-century CE Roman-occupied Alexandria. Her books have been cited for excellence at the New York Book Festival, by Wiki Ezvid, the Historical Novel Society, and as a 5-star Readers’ Favorite. Kirkus praised The Deadliest Thief for its “vibrant imagery and an entertaining plot ending with a most unexpected twist.”

As an award-winning middle school science teacher, June used storytelling to capture her students’ imagination and interest in scientific concepts. Years later as a professor of teacher education, she focused her research on the practical knowledge teachers construct and communicate through storytelling.

June, an active member of the Mystery Writers of America, lives with her husband Paul Zuckerman in New Paltz, NY where she is breathlessly recording her plucky heroine's next life-or-death exploit.

Connect with June on her website or her Facebook page: June Trop Author.

Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


Steven M. Moore said...

Great post.
Actually, as a reader, I go beyond first lines. Yeah, I know they're the subject of the post, but I take stock of title, cover, blurb, and then peek inside randomly. One can do this online or at a bookstore.
First lines, first paragraphs, and first chapters are all important to keep me reading too. That "hook" for the reader must be a strong one.
And I would also say that I'm a bit of rebel inre what I call a "good" first line. "Call me Ishmael" just didn't do it for me. The first lines to Tale of Two Cities did.
All subjective, of course.

Jacqueline Seewald said...


Excellent advice. The narrative hook at the beginning of a fiction book is extremely important--vital really. With the short attention span of the average reader these days, we must offer something that immediately draws the reader into the story.

Saralyn said...

Your first line is action-packed, heart-thumping, and sets the time and place for the reader. Great hook! (By the way, I love your organization system for first lines. That's what we call in education circles, task analysis! Best wishes always.

Margo Dill said...

I love this idea! I like that you collect and categorize first lines. That is such a writer thing to do. :) Thanks for this post.

Sioux Roslawski said...

June--Even though I know what my first lines are in my WIP, I'm going to head over to the document now and reexamine them.

This was a thought-provoking post. Thanks for writing it, and good luck with your future writing.

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