For today's writing exercise, I've decided to examine famous first lines of books, and what makes them great.
Pride and Prejudice
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
I've read this book at least five times, and the first time I read it, I didn't care for it much. But the more I read it, the more I liked it. And now, it's one of my favorites. Unlike your standard intro to setting, this book introduces the themes from the start, which would be the driving force for the rest of the novel. It's broken down into three distinct phrases that tell us about what's to come - the social decorum of the time period (truth universally acknowledged), the class system (single man in a possession of a good fortune), and the pursuance of the pride and prejudices that will set up the conflicts for what's to come (must be in want of a wife).
No one says you need to begin a novel with the, "It was a dark and story night..." cliché. Think of what you want your book or short story to be about, and find a way to pull the reader in that way.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
Starting a story with something unusual will automatically grab the attention of your reader. This first line from Orwell's popular dystopian novel introduces the oxymoron of bright and cold set against clocks and thirteen. Four sets of words that normally don't belong together are seen in the sentence, showing the reader that this is not your normal day, and this is not in your normal world. This combines the idea of a theme with a simple setting. You don't have to create a complicated setting, but it should be an effective one.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter.
Analysis: This not only introduces us to the dialect you will see throughout the story, but sets us up for an adventurous tale. It shows us that despite this character's ill education, they have seen enough things to fill a novel. And that's also a mighty fine marketing tool by Mr. Twain.
The Catcher in the Rye
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.
Analysis: This is most definitely a character intro, as this book is a character driven novel about Holden Caulfield. It would only be appropriate to make the first line about his line of thinking then. If you want to tell a story from a certain character's point of view, then this might be your way to start. This gives us insight into Holden's personality, his background, and gives us some curiosity about what's in store for him in the pages to come.
124 was spiteful.
First sentences don't have to be long. Think of Moby Dick's "Call me Ishmael." Sometimes the best thing to be is straight and to the point. Why use two words when one does the job? From first read, we are drawn into asking ourselves how an address can be spiteful. She sets up her writing style with three words, and in effect, introduces not only the setting, but the right word that characterizes it for pages to come.
The line in my first novel, Life and Death, was, "It was on a whim that one Friday date night that newlyweds Sarah and Jim King decided to stop into The Sun and the Moon Psychic."
I am by no means comparing my line to the famous ones above, but I still like this first line in that it successfully led this newlywed couple on a path that would change the course of the story.
However you choose to start your story, think of the characters, the setting, the themes, the action. You may not know all of these things from the start, but if you know any of them, write it to your strength. Most importantly, relax. Starting is oftentimes the hardest part. You can always revise later. The first draft is hardly what will end up on the finished copy, so just let your fingers hit the keyboard and type or write away!