Great first lines

I’m writing a new novel, which is another way of saying that I am obsessed with picking crumbs out from between the keys of my laptop, reading up on and worrying about Lindsay Lohan, clearing out my spam folder every 15 minutes or so, comparing my horoscopes from different astrologers, brushing up on Spider Solitaire, and looking around for new things to become obsessed with.

Today I hit upon a GREAT new obsession, and for once it even has the feeling of being even remotely about writing my novel: finding really excellent first lines.

The first line of my new novel is–at least so far: “I think I finally understand how this happened.” So it was important for me to make sure, you know, that this had never been the first line of a novel before…and in making sure of that, I came across some wonderful other first lines.

Do you have some favorites? Send them to me! (Save me from having to actually write my novel.)

It’s true, he put his hand on my ass and I was about to scream bloody murder when the bus passed by a church and he crossed himself.

–   From Luisa Valenzuela’s short story “Vision Out of the Corner of One Eye”

Even when she was very little her hunger was worth something: hunger taught her to dance, and her father noticed.

–          From Robert Hill Long’s short story, “The Restraints”

Gerard Maines lived across the hall from a woman named Benna, who four minutes into any conversation always managed to say the word penis.

–          From Lorrie Moore’s novel Anagrams

It began when George was trying on a black suit in Allders the week before Bob Green’s funeral.

–          From Mark Haddon’s novel A Spot of Bother

And Louise calls him down—she’s screaming her head off because the pipe just blew totally and water’s shooting out from under the sink and Bernie must think she’s popped an artery or something and he’s out of that bathtub like a goosed whale.

–          From K. C. Frederick’s story “Teddy’s Canary”


One day you have a home and the next you don’t, but I’m not going to tell you my particular reasons for being homeless, because it’s my secret story, and Indians have to work hard to keep secrets from hungry white folks.

–          From Sherman Alexie’s short story “What You Pawn I Will Redeem.”

They almost fingerprint the children before I can stop them.

–          From Ron Carlson’s short story “Milk”

I had always planned to kill my father.

–          From Amy Bloom’s short story “Between Here and Here”

Looking back, I should have realized something was up as soon as I opened the bedroom door and found my wife asleep on top of the sheets with a strange man curled up like a foetus beside her.

–          From Douglas Glover’s novel The South Will Rise at Noon

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

From Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel Middlesex

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God.

From John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany

He was so mean that wherever he was standing became the bad part of town.

–          From Les Edgerton’s short story “The Bad Part of Town”

The Jackmans’ marriage had been adulterous and violent, but in its last days, they became a couple again, as they might have if one of them were slowly dying.

–          From Andre Dubus’s story “The Winter Father”

People thought the Larkin couple would move after what happened.

– From Elizabeth Strout’s novel Olive Kitteredge

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

–          From J. D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye

When I got there they were burying the lion in the back yard again.

–          From Richard Brautigan’s short story “A Need for Gardens”

Jennifer Sheridan stood in the door to my office as if she were Fay Wray and I was King Kong and a bunch of black guys in sagebrush tutus were going to tie her down so that I could have my way.

–          From Robert Crais’s novel Free Fall

Several of the miracles that occurred this year have gone unrecorded.

–          From Carol Shields’s short story “Various Miracles”

Once upon a time, I was Professor Thorne Speizer’s stoned wife, and what a time that was.

–          From Laurie Colwin’s short story “The Achieve of, the Mastery of the Thing”

What it begins with, I know finally, is the kernel of meanness in people’s hearts.

–          From Jane Hamilton’s novel The Book of Ruth

I don’t know just why I’m telling you all this.

– From Maureen Daly’s novel Seventeenth Summer

My earliest memories involve fire.

–          From Dennis Lehane’s novel A Drink Before the War

“You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you.”

–          From Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir The Woman Warrior

Bomber Boyd, age thirteen, told his new acquaintances that summer that his father had been executed by the state of Florida for the murder of a sheriff’s deputy and his drug-sniffing German shepherd.

–          From Joy Williams’s story “Escapes”

All of a sudden she noticed that her beauty had fallen all apart on her, that it had begun to pain her physically like a tumor or a cancer.

–          From Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story “Eva Is Inside Her Cat”

It was not complicated, and, as my mother pointed out, not even personal: They had a hotel, they didn’t want Jews; we were Jews.

–          From Elinor Lipman’s novel The Inn at Lake Devine

On the flight to Raleigh, I sneezed, and the cough drop I’d been sucking on shot from my mouth, ricocheted off my folded tray table, and landed, as I remember it, on the lap of the woman beside me, who was asleep and had her arms folded across her chest.

–          From David Sedaris’s collection When You Are Engulfed in Flames

They were supposed to stay at the beach a week, but neither of them had the heart for it and they decided to come back early.

–          From Anne Tyler’s novel The Accidental Tourist

Elinor Mackey is cleaning out her purse, trying to lighten her load, wondering how a broken sprinkler head wound up among the contents, when she first learns that her husband, Ted, is having an affair.

–          From Lolly Winston’s novel Happiness Sold Separately

My friend Levine had only a few months to go on his doctoral dissertation, but when, one Sunday afternoon at Acres of Books, he came upon the little black paperback by Dr. Frank J. Kemp, he decided almost immediately to plagiarize it.

–          From Michael Chabon’s short story “A Model World”

When you’re seventeen and you’re the gay son of a Baptist preacher from Dallas, Texas, and you have a lisp and a drawl and a musical gift and you were named Oral because an angel told your daddy to do so in a dream, then New York City can seem like it’s saving your life.

–          From Mark Ray Lewis’s short story “Scordatura”

Shut up he explained.

–          From Ring Lardner’s novel The Young Immigrants

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8 Responses to Great first lines

  1. Nancy A. July 14, 2010 at 3:34 pm #

    Love these! Makes you realize how important that first line is. (And yours is great btw!)

  2. Nancy July 14, 2010 at 8:54 pm #

    Okay, the punctuation technically makes this more than one line, but my mother always claimed her favorite book, a Max Schulman novel, began:

    “Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Four shots ripped into my groin, and I was off on the wildest adventure of my life . . . .”

    As for myself, I’ve always liked “Marley was dead.”

  3. Maddie Dawson July 15, 2010 at 2:39 am #

    Thank you, Nancies!

    I love the first line your mother told you about. It probably is, punctuationally speaking, more than one line…but who’s really counting?

  4. Lily July 17, 2010 at 3:03 am #

    Wow! I love so many of those. Yours is great, by the way.

  5. Maddie July 17, 2010 at 5:56 pm #

    Thank you, Lily. And I can’t wait to read the first line of your novel, too.

  6. Mac October 27, 2010 at 12:18 pm #

    Did you see the news…Oh dear…Mark Owen has had his car stolen! Oh…hold on a minute…nope opps, my mistake…Its in the garden…What a clown! haha

  7. horoscope compatibility September 15, 2011 at 6:39 am #

    whats your fb?

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