“Once upon a time…” & the Power of that First Line

once upon a time-1Every story my 6-year-old daughter tells us starts with this line: “Once upon a time…”

I’m not sure if I’m responsible for that, or if school is, or if it came from one of the shows she likes to watch, or the books we read together…but while it might just be the most recognized writing cliché there is, it does exactly what a great first line is supposed to do:

It anchors the story, and ensures you read the next line.

I didn’t give opening lines much thought until I was in journalism school. And then I became obsessed. I’d have a crazy tight deadline (like, get-an-assignment-at-12 pm-and-hand-it-in-by-5 pm kind of deadline, including interviews and research…oh, my…), and I’d sit there, surrounded by all my notes, waiting, waiting…waiting for that perfect opening line. And once I had it – whoa, what a feeling. I became a first-line junkie.

Once I started freelancing I realized it wasn’t just about crafting a great first line…turns out I couldn’t write the rest of the story without the first line. Like I said, anchor. This was both enlightening and terrifying – after all, no one was paying me for those first few words; they were paying me for the other 970 words.

As one who has bought a book based on the first line alone, here are a few of my favorite opening lines:

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. — Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

  • This opening line is brilliant – it so effortlessly sets the reader in the story’s time and place, and when I read it for the first time I couldn’t wait to dig into the book…I was not disappointed.

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four Privet Drive were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.  – J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

  • The ‘thank you very much’ is what did it for me – such great voice, I knew right away I was going to love this book.

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. – John Irving, A Prayer For Owen Meany

  • This is one of my all-time favorite books, and this first line slayed me. It remains for me THE opening line to top all opening lines.

My debut novel opens like this:

Even now, the smell of peppermint still makes me cry…

In fact, it’s the entire first chapter, this one line. Now, it took me a while to shake this line out — think of it like panning for gold. SO MUCH dirt and sediment to get rid of first. I love this line, though it’s weird to “say” that out loud because, well, it feels like I’m being all Betty Boastful. But for me it evokes emotion right away, sets the reader up with questions about what’s happened, and I hope, makes the reader turn the page…

Can you put too much pressure on one line? Maybe, but it’s fun to see just how much heavy lifting it can do.

So tell me, what are your favorite opening lines?

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Karma Brown is the author of COME AWAY WITH ME (MIRA/Harlequin, September 2015), an emotional story of one woman’s discovery that life is still worth living, even if it’s not the life you planned. Karma is also a National Magazine award-winning journalist, and lives outside Toronto, Canada, with her family and their mischievous labradoodle puppy, Fred.

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