I’ve recently been reading about the importance of first lines of novels. Those sentences that are supposed to grab your readers’ attention and compel them to keep reading. There are websites that list the “best first lines,” two of which are on the American Book Review site and the Bookbaby blog. These lists are entertaining to read, but are also good food for thought for writers.
On the two lists, I’ve seen the first line “It was a dark and stormy night.” This is a line that makes most modern writers snort in derision, but the line served these earlier authors well.
From Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford published in 1830:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
I think that’s a pretty engaging opening.
From Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time published in 1962: (This is one of my favorite childhood reads.)
It was a dark and stormy night.
In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraithlike shadows that raced along the ground.
Wow, I love that beginning. The verbs, especially, create a three-dimensional image full of movement.
Before it was considered a cliché, I think this phrase worked. And, of course, what follows in each beginning draws you more into each story.
This got me thinking about the first lines of my novels. In particular, I thought the beginning of one of my middle grade novels, The Castle Blues Quake, could use some revising. Originally I wrote it with the “big bang” theory in mind, but I was never quite happy with it.
Below is the new (and improved?) version. Let me know what you think. Generally, what your thoughts on first lines—with either books you’ve read, or books you’ve written or are writing?
Old beginning to Castle Blues Quake:
I bolted up in bed. A streak of yellow light shot under my door then snapped back into darkness. Footsteps creaked past my room. Then a noise that sounded like a monster’s long, loud burp vibrated through the walls.
I fell back onto the pillow. Just Mom or Dad using the bathroom. What passed for a bathroom, anyway, in Mom’s hundred-year-old “dream house” with hundred-year-old pipes that made the rudest sounds.
I burrowed into my down comforter. Down. In California. In the summer. What was wrong with this picture? Cold, wet fog, that’s what. I thought of my BFF Chrissie sweating in New York, kicking her feet out of the sheets while the smells of Chinese food, pizza and hot dogs drifted in through the open window. It’d only been a few days, and missing her and the city was a never-ending ache in my chest.
My mother’s “dream” house turned out to be a “nightmare” house.
It was my third night in the place, and I still had trouble sleeping. How could I relax with the noisy pipes that sounded like a monster’s long, loud burp vibrating through the walls? With the creaking footsteps past my door every time Mom or Dad or Sage used the bathroom. With the branch scratching my darkened window like the fleshless fingers of a zombie rising from its grave, a grave most likely hidden in the backyard.
I burrowed into my down comforter…