Stephen King has some wonderful first lines, that both hook the reader and skillfully capture the essence of the book. There’s a lot to be learned from his technique. Here are four of my favorites.
The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.
This sentence sets up the story’s setting, tone, and plot. As soon as we read it, we know who the good guy is and who the bad guy is. The “man in black” can be nothing else. If you’ve read the book, you also know the simple, spare construction of the sentence suits Roland’s character. Stephen King is revealing the gunslinger’s nature to us in the structure of the prose itself.
He’s also communicating the urgency and desolate, lonely nature of Roland’s quest. “Fled” and “the desert” and the fact that only two people are named, the hunter and the prey, convey both the tone of the story and the setting. In addition, the sentence is beautiful and compelling, and one of my all time favorites in any work of literature.
The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years— if it ever did end— began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.
It takes place both in the characters’ childhoods and in their adult lives, moving back and forth between narratives. By mentioning the twenty-eight years as a continuous reign of terror, King has already set up his framing device for the novel. “If it ever did end” is an ominous reminder of the pervasive, immortal nature of the beast that seems almost impossible to kill.
The image here, the child’s boat, is starkly contrasted with the “gutter swollen with rain,” which resembles a mouth and a stomach swollen with food and is used to suggest the monster that devours children. The contrast sets up one of the central themes of the book, that of innocence lost when childhood and evil collide head-on.
And like all of these examples, the prose is so well crafted, to make one of the most memorable opening images I’ve come across.
The Long Walk
An old blue Ford pulled into the guarded parking lot that morning, looking like a small, tired dog after a hard run.
The Long Walk isn’t as well known as the other books I’ve quoted here, so I’ll give a brief idea of the premise; a game show where contestants simply start walking, and are killed if they stop. The last man left standing wins.
This sentence is actually a beautiful, subtle summary of the entire book. The “guarded parking lot” represents the confinement of the path, the guards that will shoot anyone who stops walking. The “small, tired dog,” might stand in for the winner, who has been reduced to nothing but an animal. And of course the “hard run” would be the walk itself.
It’s so simple, and that’s what makes it so effective. It gives this sense of the ordinary, disrupted by the slightest hint of menace–the guarded parking lot, before pitching us into this disturbing reality.
Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow.
Carrie is a book about the dark side of the subconscious. Both Carrie’s savage subconscious and the subconscious of her classmates are illustrated perfectly in this first line. The side characters in this book are all complicit, on one level or another, with the building violence, “where savage things grow.” On a subconscious level, they’re not at all surprised to see “it” happen.
The vague “it happened” is done on purpose, not just to hide the surprises in the book, but to illustrate the way we and the characters talk about the savage subconscious, in loose terms, without ever acknowledging outright the violence within.
Again this sentence is simple but brilliantly written, immediately setting the tone and theme of the book before us, in a way so subtle it’s easy to overlook, but you can bet it has an effect on the reader’s subconscious.
So what can be learned from this? I think one important lesson is that it’s hard to write the first line of the book until you are in a place to really grasp the essence of the book, the themes and the nature of the story. These first lines are strong because they so clearly relate to the rest of the book and highlight what’s great about each story. They’re also beautifully written, which is important for any first line.