that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Jane Austen.
Quote just half the first line of Pride and Prejudice and most historical fans could name where those words came from. That incredible first sentence sets the tone for the rest of the book, and most writers dream of emulating Jane Austen’s succinct wit.
Let me share with you some of the great first lines I found in my keeper shelf of regency set historical romance:
It was a hell of a night for an elopement. Karen Hawkins, The Abduction of Julia (2000)
“And last, to my cousin Anthony Elliot, the estimable Earl of Greyley, I leave the sole care of all my five of my beloved children.” Karen Hawkins, An Affair to Remember (2002)
As you can see from the above first lines, the author shows us the situation. She sets up the main characters, and hint at how sticky the situation might become for them. Both styles, using dialogue or narrative, are good ways to start.
As Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, stared at the young woman who had just barged her way into his London residence, it occurred to him that he might have tried to abduct the wrong heiress last week at Stony Cross Park. Lisa Kleypas, Devil in Winter (2006)
What was a caricaturist to do when she ran out of material? Anne Mallory, Masquerading the Marquess (2004)
These two are quite different in length yet they give a back-story for the main character: a failed abduction; the other, a current profession. Both hint strongly that the character still needs to accomplish their goals.
The Boscastle-Welsham marriage would have been the wedding of the year - if the groom had bothered to put in an appearance. Jillian Hunter, The Love Affair of an English Lord (2005)
The late Dominic Breckland, Viscount Stratfield, was returning to life in a sea of women’s underwear. Jillian Hunter, The Seduction of an English Scoundrel (2005)
These two strike me as particularly vivid. They give a hint of back-story, future conflicts, and the situations are humorous.
But not all published books have great first lines. A flick through my keeper shelves only produced a dozen with stand out first sentences. I’m not saying the other hundred were inferior stories, but only a handful really hooked me on that first line.
The first line, the first pages of a novel, have to hook the reader but before your work even gets to them, it has to pass the gatekeepers of publication, the agent and the editor. An author must make any reader curious enough to keep going and forget the world around them. I’ve spent many a late night (ok early morning) turning “just one more page” because a clever writer hooked me early and kept me in their world.
Everyone has favourite books, and my keeper shelves could do with some new additions. (DH wouldn’t actually agree with me on this though) So, have a look at your shelves, and your e-book files, and get back to me with titles containing great first lines. I’d love to add them to my to-be-read pile.