First Impressions and Gelato

It’s Me-Me Monday. There’s nothing I like better than reading books. Discovering new worlds, meeting new people, hearing a story I’ve never heard before–it’s magical. Today, I’ll share a few of my favorite first lines in novels and talk about why I like them.

First, though, let’s talk about gelato.  This weekend was my aunt’s birthday.  We ended up going to a Piccomolo Italian Ice Cream.  When we walked in, we saw something not unlike this:

Originally, I thought I might get an espresso.  The minute I saw all that beautiful gelato before me…well, you know what I had to do.  Had all the gelato been in a different room where I couldn’t see it, I might have stayed with the espresso.  But Piccomolo’s presentation–their first line–hooked me.

First lines of books are kind of like that.  The job of that first sentence is to hook the reader, to draw him in.  The same thing won’t appeal to everybody, though.  One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

 

It’s not much different than gelato.  At Piccomolo’s, my mom, my two aunts and I each chose something different.  I got a chocolate hazelnut mix.  My aunt Kathy got a lemon gelato.  Talk about opposite ends of the gelato flavor spectrum.

What does this have to do with first lines?  Everybody has different taste.  There are, however, similar elements in what people find appealing.  Below, I’ve examined a few of my favorite first lines to see what similarities I can find.  I challenge you to do the same with some of your favorite books.

The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton

“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.”

Man, I still love that line.  Here’s what it’s got going:

  • It created mystery.  What Paul Newman movie did the narrator see? Why did he need a ride home?  Why didn’t his parents come get him?  Why didn’t he take the bus?
  • It’s lyrical.  Really.  Read it out loud and feel the way it rolls off your tongue like it was meant to be. I still like “movie house.”
  • It’s universal.  Everybody knows what it’s like to step out of a dark room and into brightness.  Your eyes burn.  You might throw up one hand to shield them.  It’s like stepping into a new world, and that’s exactly what happens to the narrator as he leaves the movie house.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.

  • It’s short and to the point.
  • It’s lyrical.  Go on and say it to yourself.  You don’t trip over any words with this one.
  • It’s true.  Ships at a distance do have every man’s wish on board.  When something hovers on the horizon, it holds all the possibility in the world.  It’s only when you get into the thick of it that you realize it holds the same frustrations, disappointments, and hard work everything else does.

Heart Shaped Box by Joe Hill

Jude had a private collection.

  • Short and to the point.
  • Creates mystery.  Who is Jude?  Just what does he have in this private collection?  What kind of man needs a private collection?
  • It’s lyrical.  Go on.  Read it.  It’s like it was meant to be written the way it is.  There are a dozen different ways this sentence could have been written, but simple and to the point was the best way.

Less than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis

People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.

  • It’s creepy, and creepy is interesting.  The statement is about fear, but it’s not about the narrator.  He says, “People are afraid…” not “I am afraid.”  The narrator either feels separate from the events around him or wants to feel separate.  Why?
  • More mystery:  Why are people afraid to merge on freeways?  Why does the narrator think this?
  • Setting.  Anything about L.A. is interesting.  It’s where movies are made.  It’s one of the biggest cities in the US.  L.A. alone captures the imagination.
  • Lyrical.  I know I keep saying this, but read it out loud.
So what does a first line need to be?  Everything and nothing–all at the same time.  It has to be lyrical, but it can be long or short.  It has to create mystery.  It has to evoke an emotion in me.  Beyond that, it can be just about anything.  

What are some of your favorite first lines? Why? What do you think makes a great first line in a book?