Building a Book: The First Line

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

For years, this iconic first line from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford has stood out for the right, and the wrong, reasons. But something truly comical about this line is that while almost everyone agrees that it’s one of the worst first lines in literary history, to the point that it inspired a worst-line contest sponsored by San Jose State University, sites like American Book Review list it as a best first line.   

It’s so important to get the perfect first line. If you get it right, you’re golden. It will be the line that marketers grab for back-cover copy, sales pieces, and social media posts. It will be the line potential readers see when they browse at the library or bookstore just before sticking it in the yes pile.

You know all of this when you sit down to write your first line. And that pressure is daunting.

On the topic of first lines, Sparknotes says, “The first sentence in a book is like a pick-up line. If it’s memorable, the other person will be captivated, engaged, intrigued. Fail and you’ll either become a joke for all eternity, or be forgotten completely. (And you can forget about scoring a date.)”

After this line, the Sparknotes article goes on to deliver what they believe to be the eight worst first sentences of all time. But let’s just focus on the lessons taught by the first three of these lines, shall we?

1. “I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.” – 50 Shades of Grey, E.L. James

Let. Me. Be. Clear… I do not like this series. I do not hide that I do not like these series. Yet I, like so many, have read all six books in the franchise. I also have seen all the movies, the first on DVD courtesy of my college roommate, and the second and third in theatres.

Is this a crappy first line? Yes. It’s bad, unimaginative, and uninspired writing.

It is the first line of a bestselling series that included five additional books thus far and a blockbuster movie series.

It was a bad first line, but clearly it didn’t ruin everything for E.L. James

2. “‘Ho, Diomed, well met! Do you sup with Glaucus to-night?’ said a young man of small stature, who wore his tunic in those loose and effeminate folds which proved him to be a gentleman and a coxcomb.” – The Last Days of Pompeii, Edward Bulwer-Lytton

This man just can’t figure out first lines, can he?

What is fun about Bulwer-Lytton is that despite being known as one of the worst first-line writers of all time, he was still a popular writer in his time. His crappy first lines didn’t slow him down. In fact, the line from Pompeii was released four years after the whole “It was a dark and stormy night” fiasco.

It was a bad first line, but it clearly didn’t ruin everything for Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

3. “Hador Goldenhead was a lord of the Edain and well-beloved by the Eldar. He dwelt while his days lasted under the lordship of Fingolfin, who gave to him wide lands in that region of Hithlum…” – Children of Hurin, J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the most celebrated authors of all time, yet even he wrote this long, dragging line to open Children of Hurin.

But let’s also pause and note that this novel was not completed in Tolkien’s lifetime, rather his son Christopher Tolkien compiled various revisions into one unified narrative. If J.R.R. Tolkien had committed to publishing in his lifetime, this line may have been different.

So, the lesson learned here is twofold. The first is that it was a bad first line, but it clearly didn’t ruin everything for J.R.R. Tolkien. The second is that a bad first line can easily exist in the first few revisions of your work.

If you’re completely unnerved by the prospect of writing a first line, just get something down on paper. Later, when you’re ready, go back and spend time workshopping it. Avoid being melodramatic, insert action, and keep it tight. Read the first lines of your favorite novels and see what sentence structures they’re using and emulate them. You can, with a ton of work that a reader will never recognize, have a perfect first line.

And if it does end up being bad, remember that it doesn’t have to ruin everything for you.