First Lines, Part the First

So I’ve had first sentences on my brain for a while, ever since that post I wrote a few weeks ago. I like noticing how writers begin things, how, perhaps, they try to lure their readers in with the first few words.

It’s no small task getting someone to read one’s writing. After all, in this day of tweets and facebook updates, sound-bytes, movies and video games, who wants to be bothered with text of any length? Annie Dillard says it well: “The written word is weak. Many people prefer life to it. Life gets your blood going, and it smells good. Writing is mere writing, literature is mere.”


Nonetheless, there are lots of books out there, and lots of readers. This interests me.

So I’ve taken a small survey of how writers begin things, and I have, in testament, a small stack of some of my favorites on the dining room table. My plan is to share my findings, but slowly, because we wouldn’t want this post to be too long, would we? People would stop reading it, and I have Other Things to write. So I’ll begin here, and finish later, and you, O Reader, can read if you want to. That’s always the way.

First Lines: Geography

Some writers begin by providing us with a solid geography. This is not a bad idea. After all, he or she is inviting us into a world we’ve never seen. The lay of the land is going to matter over the course of this book, and so our author wants to give us a literal foothold in Place. And even if we have seen this landscape, we haven’t seen it in the way the writer wishes us to. So the writer chooses to situate us, as it were.

George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss is a classic example. Her opening lines give us clear views of the River Floss in its natural state and the way the mill sits alongside it. The novel will draw meaning from these things; the characters’ lives will be formed by them. Eliot’s is a lovely opening, vividly and fluently descriptive, and precisely– due to length, due to inaction– the sort of beginning my students would be frustrated by. And also some of my friends.

Ah, so sad. “Literature is mere,” indeed.

Alan Paton starts with geography, too. His famous (and brilliant and gorgeous) Cry the Beloved Country begins with a description of a small region of South Africa, and his opening lines are so stunningly, simply beautiful that I forced my college roommate to hear me reading them aloud. I would read them aloud for you, too, but I lack the technology, or the know-how, or the time to discover the same. Instead, I recommend that you read them aloud for yourself. Here. Here they are now:

“There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.”

See what I mean?

The topography at the beginning of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is sidelong. His main character is found making his way along or out of a scar in the landscape, and it’s only by inference that one comes to know that the scar was made by a plane crash, and that the airplane itself slid out to sea. Thus Golding establishes his vital setting, and his language, a “scar,” suggests what he is about to unfold: the nature of man and his power to inflict destruction and pain.

Geography, then, is a nice way to begin, don’t you think? What we want, after all, is for a book to transport us. By giving us topography right off the bat, the author gets us underway. Emily Dickinson said it so much better:

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

4 thoughts on “First Lines, Part the First

  1. I can still hear you reading Paton's lovely words. Thank you for that wonderful memory and for your role in developing my own love of literature.


  2. The first sentence is always the hardest. Once past that the ideas flow a little easier.
    But whenever the subject of first sentences comes up I always think of The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (, which awards those who can come up with the worst opening sentence imaginable. As a writer, you would appreciate it. And it's good for a laugh. Check it out..


  3. Thank you, dear Beth. You are so right about Steinbeck. Ack! How could I have neglected him?

    Tracey, it's so great to hear from you! Yes, you dear thing, you put up with more than that reading-aloud crap from me. Thanks for casting it in such a nice light, and thanks for reading!

    Timothy, yes! I'm somewhat familiar with that Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, and will definitely look that up. Thanks for the link, and for reading!


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