“First sentences are doors to worlds.” – Ursula K. Le Guin

This quote introduces the first chapter, titled “Beginnings”, in the book, What If: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. The authors encourage you to look at first lines and how they lead you into the story. What has happened before the first line? What information does the first line give you, and what questions does it present? Examples are generous and inspirational as the exercises direct you to begin a story with a given first line, with a child narrator, with a description of a person, etc., etc.

I’ve started to pay more attention to first lines and how they function. Which ones make me want to read more? I’ve started practicing writing first lines as an end in itself. I’ve also started my own collection of favorites from books and stories that I’ve read. I’m going to showcase some of them here. Those not credited to someone else are my own meager attempts. I’d love to see yours!

“There’s a story in our family that says David was given nine lives.”

“He has a full head of white hair, rumpled as if he forgot to run a comb through it, a wide smile, soft gray eyes and a sing-song voice.”

“No matter what they say, most people want to be respected.”

“She was wearing a green Tupperware colander on her head the day she met the man she’d spend the rest of her life with.”

“Underneath two certificates for excellence in Electrical Business Management and an unexplainable high school yearbook from 1941 nestled nine pair of baby shoes.”

“He had a friendly face and good hair though his full beard, trimmed oddly into a “W” at the bottom, left her wondering if he was Hassidic Jew or hippie, Amish farmer or survivalist.”

“We came together in the family home to prepare for our sister’s funeral and our mother’s death.”

“The summer heat was accompanied by the ever-present shadow of my mother’s illness.”

“No matter how they may deny it, most people care what others think of them.”

“Every woman wishes she were beautiful.”

“We sat on the bench with Grandpa until he went to town, and then we sat on the bench just the three of us, watching for his car to come back.”

“Mosquitoes have arrived with the warm nights, and our bedchamber is their theater under the stars.”   -E.B.White

“On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” -E.B.White

“I wasn’t really prepared for the World’s Fair last week, and it certainly wasn’t prepared for me.” -E.B.White

“On an afternoon in the spring of 1938, foreseeing a change in my life, I rode the subway down to Cortlandt Street, visited Peter Henderson’s seed store, and came away with a mixed order of flower and vegetable seeds.” -E.B.White

“Those of us who are not overly familiar with the nuances of Ugaritic, Luvian, Hittite, Mesopotamian cuneiform, Palaic, or Creto-Mycenaean Linear B, do know a little something, nevertheless, about the Rosetta stone!” -Evan S. Connell

“The clerk of the court took a good look at the tall brown-skinned woman with the head rag on.”          -Zora Neale Hurston

“On a cool October day in the oak-forested hills of Lorestan Province in Iran, a lost child was saved in an inconceivable way.” -Barbara Kingsolver

“Here’s a secret you should know about mothers: We spy.” -Barbara Kingsolver

2 responses »

    • That book is a treasure! I found many references that I love…the Le Guin quote just one of them. My writing leans more toward non-fiction, as yours does (not that I’m close to having your ability or goals!), but it has been very helpful nonetheless.

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