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Classic First Line Perfection

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When you think of classic first lines, I bet that at least one of these three comes to mind:

  • “Call me Ismael.”

-Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851)

  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

-Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

-Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

What makes these first lines so memorable?

Within the first sentence of Melville’s Moby Dick, you already know the main character. Not only does Ishmael speak directly to the reader, the way he introduces himself leaves a touch of mystery. Melville could have written, “My name is Ishmael,” which solidifies the character’s name, however he chose to create suspicion in the reader’s mind. “Call me Ishmael.” Is Ishmael his real name? Is it a nickname? Can we trust this character? The choice of name also stands out. Had Melville chosen the name Bob, the line wouldn’t have the same punch.

The first line in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities instantly creates tension. His use of rhythm and anaphora sets up the theme of duality that runs all throughout A Tale of Two Cities– hope and despair, love and hate, London and Paris, Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay etc.

Jane Austen is a personal favorite. The first line of Pride in Prejudice summarizes the entire plot of the story – the pursuit of beneficial marriage in 19th century England. Austen explores both sides of the equation. If a single, wealthy man needs a wife, then a single woman needs a wealthy husband. With five daughters, the Bennett’s are desperate.

How can writers construct first lines like the classics?

First, don’t steal the classics. I’ve read so many books that take the classic lines and twist them. How many “It’s a dark and stormy nights,” do we really need? Even the best-overused phrase becomes cliché. Instead, try to come up with something fresh.

Second, don’t be afraid to get creative. Let your crazy juice flow. You can always edit later on.

Lastly, make your first line significant. Fist lines can reveal character, create suspense, and summarize plot. They grab the reader and pull them into your world. Make them count.

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