A Few Very Fine First Lines

These past few weeks I’ve mostly been reading short fiction. This is also the form I’m writing right now (and it will be my focus when I attend a writing retreat in Massachusetts this June.)

Today I’d like to share a few beginnings from my recent readings. Rather than a first line or first paragraph I’m going to share the first two. I love to see how even a couple of lines can fit together and spark. I wonder about the writing process behind them (did they come out together in the first draft–find each other in revision?) Isolating lines in this way also has me revisiting some of my own beginnings–thinking about how they might hit my reader’s mind.

These beginnings differ in length, style, and tone. Some invite the reader in by plainly offering the occasion for the story, while others get right into the emotional architecture of a character. Perhaps some seem rather…unremarkable on their own, but they really do serve their story remarkably well (finish the story and you’ll see).

So here we go–a few fine first lines of stories recently loved:

. . .

Once there was a man who happened to buy God’s overcoat. He was rummaging through a thrift store when he found it hanging on a rack by the fire exit, nestled between a birch-colored fisherman’s sweater and a cotton blazer with a suede patch on one of the elbows.

“A Fable with Slips of White Paper Spilling From the Pockets” by Kevin Brockmeier

. . .

Lenore was happy to sever her friendships. It’s for a higher cause, she wrote in her journal the day before they left.

“Spanish Moss” by Chad Gusler

. . .

Syl had put up pictures of Brian in every room in the house–she had the ones Evan and Angie emailed printed at Black’s because she wanted the baby around all the time, as if he lived in their house instead of so far away. The snapshot in the kitchen was from the baby’s first moments on earth, flushed and scrunched, pink and blue, wailing and naked.

“Sweet” by Rebecca Rosenblum

. . .

I am quitting a boy like people quit smoking. I am not quitting smoking.

“Carry Me Home, Sisters of Saint Joseph” by Marie-Helene Bertino

. . .

We liked the house because, apart from its being old and spacious (in a day when old houses go down for a profitable auction of their construction materials), it kept the memories of great-grandparents, our paternal grandfather, our parents and the whole of childhood.

Irene and I got used to staying in the house by ourselves, which was crazy, eight people could have lived in that place and not have gotten in each other’s way.

“House Taken Over” by Julio Cortazar

. . .

It was summer, the middle of July, the middle of the twentieth century, and in the city of Toronto one hundred people were boarding an airplane.

“Right this way,” the lipsticked stewardess cried.

—  “Home” by Carol Shields

. . .

The twilight of evening. Big flakes of wet snow are whirling lazily about the street lamps, which have just been lighted, and lying in a thin soft layer on roofs, horses’ backs, shoulders, caps.

—  “Misery” by Anton Chekhov

. . .

And fellow short story readers, I’d love to hear from you. Read any fine first lines lately?

17 thoughts on “A Few Very Fine First Lines”

  1. I usually enjoy reading short stories, but haven’t picked up a collection for a while. One of the last collections I read was ‘Ten Tales Tall & True’ by Alasdair Gray. My favourite first lines in these stories was from one called ‘Time Travel’, which opened with the following:

    ‘I discovered an odd thing about my left foot when about to pull on a sock this morning. In the groove between the second and third toe, reckoning from the big toe, is a small grey pellet of chewing-gum.’

  2. Adele, these are scrumptious. I’m returning to fiction after a number of years reading and writing almost exclusively spiritual formation or ecclesiastica. I understand, by way of the obtuse, that we have a common friend in Barbara Lane. This makes me happy for, to know her, is to already be her friend. I’ll e-tap her shoulder and have her stop by.

  3. This one, from A Giant in the House & Other Excesses by Daniel Pearlman, which I’m currently reading:
    Jamie’s mother was so sure she’d be having a girl that she tagged her son with the name long reserved for her dream-daughter. Continuing to give the finger to embryological destiny, she further ignored convention by refusing to change the pink decor, which she’d spent months blissfully assembling, to the gender-appropriate blue.
    — “The Fetal Position,” by Daniel Pearlman

  4. How about: “MRS. MOONEY was a butcher’s daughter. She was a woman who was quite able to keep things to herself: a determined woman.” My favorite. From Joyce’s “The Boarding House”

  5. I love opening lines, although I tend to remember the ones of favourite novels better than short stories. But an unforgettable one has got to be Kafka’s ‘When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from restless dreams, he found himself transformed, in his bed, into a giant insect.’

  6. So glad more people can enjoy these lines. Thanks for commenting, all–and I appreciate the enticing lines some of you have shared as well. Just amazing how much can be packed into a sentence or two…

  7. I loved the first excerpt! May have to look out for that opne. At the moment i’m reading The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami, which are short stories, nothing of note to relate though sadly.

  8. These are fabulous. I particularly am intrigued as to what was in God’s coat pockets. And, given my recent post “We liked the house because…” appealed to me. Thank you for sharing.

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