My favorite beginning of a novel comes from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead: “Howard Roark laughed. He stood naked at the edge of a cliff. The lake lay far below him. A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight to the sky over motionless water.” Can you see him standing there? I can. I read those words and knew this story would be extraordinary, that Roark would be different from anyone else I’ve ever known. It helped, perhaps, that I read the book very young. I’m not sure what I would have thought of Roark’s rigid perspective of life as an adult. This beginning, however, influenced me, and I have always striven for a similar effect in my writing, an unbending and clear introduction of what my story is about.
Of course, I have loved novels with less dramatic beginnings. The first two sentences of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat always leave me feeling confused: “There were four of us -- George, and William Samuel Harris, and myself, and Montmorency. We were sitting in my room, smoking, and talking about how bad we were -- bad from a medical point of view, I mean, of course.” Somehow, these two bewildering sentences appeared endearing and characteristic after I got to know the narrator, but when I began the novel, I could not figure out why Jerome names six men when he says they were four but the book is titled three, or why he uses so many commas.
A great first line can be a treat, like the first bite of a truly delectable dish. “It is a truth universally acknowledged,” writes Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice what is universally acknowledged as one of the very best first lines ever written, “that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” My first line, not quite there, might still change and change again. I wouldn't be so sure that it might not end up simply being: “Once upon a time in a faraway land there lived a princess who was not going to go on a birthday adventure.”
What is your favorite first line in a novel?