It was a dark and stormy night…?

I love working on the first line of a story, especially a novel. The first sentence sets the tone for the whole book. It’s the first impression and if it’s off, it can sour the rest of the book for the reader. The first sentence will always be more memorable than the 100th sentence, so it has to be better.

So, what’s important to say in the first sentence? Many writers introduce their characters, since they are central to the story. Some introduce the landscape. A commonly held no-no is to start with the weather because usually the weather is trivial. One of my novel’s first lines is: “The air in the room felt close, like a cave, and the darkness smelled like baby powder and diaper rash cream.” There, I was trying to introduce the setting, but also set the mood and also give foreshadowing for the story to come, since it’s about babies and darkness. Another, where I introduce the character right away is: “Jonah liked being a hunter.” That also is trying to give a setting for the whole story, since the whole story in one way or another, is about hunting.

Here are some books that I have in my house and their first lines:

“The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring cleaning his little home.” (The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame). This introduces the character and gives a tone for the rest of the book. It’s a domestic story about domestic problems, and also about animals.

“A mile above Oz, the Witch balanced on the wind’s forward edge, as if she were a green fleck of the land itself, flung up and sent wheeling away by the turbulent air.” (Wicked, by Gregory Maguire). Another character introduction. This is actually in the prologue of the story, I think. It introduces the Witch as solitary and disconnected with the rest of the world, a problem she has through the whole story.

“Marley was dead: to begin with.” (A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens). Dickens was wonderful at first lines. This just grabs you and throws you into the story.

“Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house.” (Coraline, by Neil Gaiman). This first sentence introduces the character and also shows right away what is important in the story by saying “the door” instead of “a door” as if we should already know about it.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen). I think this is another of those classic first lines that lays out the whole book in a single sentence.

And then, the first line that I read and just laughed and laughed. Good or bad is for you to decide, but it definitely grabs you: “It was a long day, the day Axis tried to kill Azhure, then married her.” (Starman, by Sara Douglass).

Do you have any favorite first lines from novels? What are some of your own? Let me know. 🙂


About David Stewart

I am a writer of anything quirky and weird. I love most genres of fiction and in each there are stories that I would consider "my kind of story". View all posts by David Stewart

23 responses to “It was a dark and stormy night…?

  • La La

    I studied a lot of Jane Austen in school and I’ve always loved that first line from Pride and Prejudice. Good pick!

  • maria5125

    I love Jim Butcher’s books, they are very funny (I love books that make me laugh out loud) and he is very good at capturing the audience right away, here are a few examples of first (and in some cases first few) sentences:

    Life is hard. Dying’s easy. (Ghost Story)

    It rained toads the day the White Council came to town. (Summer Knight)

    Some things just aren’t meant to go together. Things like oil and water. Orange jucie and toothpaste. Wizards and television. (Death Masks)

    The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault. (Blood Rites)

    On the whole, we’re a murderous race. (Dead Beat)

    Blood leaves no stain on a Warden’s grey cloak. (Proven Guilty)

  • Carrie Rubin

    I’m still a fan of “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” from A Tale of Two Cities. An oldie but a goodie. 🙂

  • Christopher De Voss

    My favorite opening is from Stephen King’s The Mist:
    “This is what happened.”

  • rayworth1973

    I think it’s a false premise to pay so much attention to the first line. It’s something someone thought of once and it’s stuck.

    As a reader, I’ve never paid much attention to a first line unless it’s either really good, really bad or really boring. Either way, I NEVER judge a book by it because in most cases, the only time that line ever lives up to the story is if it’s really bad. If it’s from “just a line” on up, it’s okay to move on.

    I judge a book by how it develops, but at least a chapter or two, not by one line. Yeah, with our short attention span society, maybe all it takes is less than 20 words, but if someone is going to invest in the time to read a book, I just can’t see them weighing it all on one line.

    Doing an unofficial survey after this came up a few years ago in my writer’s group after a conference, I went back through just about every book I had on my shelf and didn’t find a single brilliant or “wow” line in the bunch. All of them, except one or two, were great reads that had nothing to do with the first line.

    I say this may be a nice academic ecercise, but I wouldn’t get too worked up over it.

  • myothervoices

    ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded’ has always stuck with me: Iain Banks, The Crow Road and nearly every Bellow opening line.

  • Sharmishtha

    you are a very good reader! i wish i could remember first lines like you have but i dont!

    I too think that the first para mostly decides the fate of the story- whether or not most of the readers read it or not.

    loved each and everyone of your selection- they truly are remarkable.

  • legionwriter

    Dickens rocks opening lines. Probably the best ever.

  • naomiajones

    I love paying attention to the first paragraph in a novel and trying to figure out what the author is telling me, how they are trying to pull me into, selling me onto why I should read their book.

  • Jeff

    “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” First line of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.

  • The Bumble Files

    I’m not sure at the moment, but I love the one from Dickens you shared. That’s a great one. I’m Nano-ed out for now!

Let me know what you think. I appreciate all comments and criticisms.

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