Issue #38, Summer 2010

AfterWORDS: The Art of the Start

AfterWORDS: The Art of the Start

Every writer understands the importance of drawing readers in from the very first sentence—but how do you do that? As this sampling of first lines of first nonfiction books shows, there are as many possible approaches as there are stories to be told. Some of these sentences have become classics, while others have been eclipsed by their authors’ later successes or simply by the passage of time.

Admit it—you want to know what comes next!

After you've had a chance to read our favorites, please share your own favorite first lines. Bonus points for insights into why they're great!

[SETTING]
The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.”
Truman Capote, In Cold Blood

[CHARACTER]
James Patrick Perron, who is twenty-seven years old and the youngest mayor in the history of Elkhart, Indiana, as well as the youngest mayor of any decent-sized town in the state, drives a navy-blue Buick sedan with four doors, plush seats, power brakes, and a big, squishy suspension that smooths out bumps in the road.
Susan Orlean, Saturday Night

[WARNING]
Beware thoughts that come in the night
William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways

[A MYSTERY]
My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.
Mary Karr, The Liars’ Club

[SYMBOLISM]
Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide.
Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life

[ACTION]
KER-POW! I was knocked into the present, the unmistakeable now, by Joni Friedman’s head as it collided with the right side of my jaw.
Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face

[SUSPENSE]
A few months ago after my twenty-first birthday, a stranger called to give me the news.
Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father

[VOICE-OVER]
From the outset, let us bring you news of your protagonist
Norman Mailer, The Armies of the Night

[MOM]
My mother is standing in front of the bathroom mirror smelling polished and ready; like Jean Nate, Dippity Do and the waxy sweetness of lipstick.
Augusten Burroughs, Running With Scissors

[DAD]
My father stopped living with us when I was three or four. Most of his adult life was spent as a patient in various expensive rest homes for dipsomaniacs and victims of nervous collapse.
Frank Conroy, Stop-Time

[THE WHOLE FAMILY]
My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.
Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes

[A QUESTION]
People ask, How did you get in there? What they really want to know is if they are likely to end up in there as well.
Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted

[UNDERSTATEMENT]
My high school friends have begun to suspect I haven’t told them the full story of my life.
Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

[NOSTALGIA]
Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.
Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

[PRESEASON]
In the beginning, on a dog-day Monday in the middle of August when the West Texas heat congealed in the sky, there were only the stirrings of dreams.
Buzz Bissinger, Friday Night Lights

[JUST—WOW.]
By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree.
Elizabeth Gilbert, The Last American Man

[REALLY??]
I wake to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin.
James Frey, A Million Little Pieces

[MADE FOR THE SCREEN]
Jim Gallien had driven four miles out of Fairbanks when he spotted the hitchhiker standing in the snow beside the road, thumb raised high, shivering in the gray Alaska dawn.
Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

[EXPLOSIVE]
At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.
John Hersey, Hiroshima

[CONVERSATIONAL]
When I was a very little child, oh, about six or seven, I had a habit of walking down Walnut and Copeland streets; you know those streets.
John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers

[STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND]
I remember to start with that day in Sacramento – a California now nearly thirty years past – when I first entered a classroom, able to understand some fifty stray English words.
Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory

[THE THINGS SHE CARRIED]
I arrived in the Alice at five a.m. with a dog, six dollars and a small suitcase full of inappropriate clothes.
Robyn Davidson, Tracks

What's your favorite first line? We limited ourselves to first lines of first nonfiction books, but we won't require the same restraint from you!

Author Bio

Comments

f glucksman

December 2, 2015

"At the first gesture of morning, flies came swarming." --Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier

growetsy.uservo...

August 15, 2017

It is perfect time to make some plans for the future and it is time to be happy.

I've read this post and if I could I wish to suggest you few interesting things or advice.
Perhaps you can write next articles referring to this article.
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need help with ...

August 17, 2017

Hey! I'm at work browsing your blog from my new apple iphone!
Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog and look forward
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Marjorie Wilhelm

May 14, 2016

My memoir's first line: There was a wonderful playhouse in back of the funeral home.

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