First and Last Lines

An example of a notable first line.

I’m going through some old public posts from my Patreon that never got shared here and cross-posting in an attempt to get back into blogging, like them old days of the early 2000s. This one is from November 2018.

I recently (finally) finished Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer, which has lots of good stuff about storytelling in it. Chapter three is about beginnings and endings, with some illustrated pages sharing notable first and last lines. Like a lot of this book, it made me think of the possibilities of using it as a text in a class and what exercises you could implement beyond those included in the book itself. What are the first and last lines of books and stories I love?

It’s a fun exercise, and one that is especially neat if you know the hell out of a book and just the bookends of these first and last sentences summon the story itself out of the space between, like the notes of a theremin between whatever the top and bottom bits are called. Like an earlier exercise (also Wonderbook inspired and available to Patrons), where I sorted through old stories and categorised them by point of view, it can also be sort of telling about what draws you to something as both a reader and storyteller.

The Exercise

Grab three to five of your favourite books or stories or fics or whatever, and just copy out the first line and the last line. I let “line” be a little flexible, I’m not counting whatever false citation Borges opens a story with, I am counting two short sentences that are part of one shouted line, etc.

Some things to think about when you’re looking them over: 

  • Do the first line and the last line seem like they resonate with each other thematically?
  • Do the first and the last lines have any sort of balance or mirroring in action or emotion?
  • If you didn’t know the story well, what kind of story could live between these lines?

Of course, a story is a lottttttt more than just the first and the last lines, but the whole point of exercises is to look at things with the corner of your eye in an attempt to see what can’t be seen head-on.

I had a lot of fun with this because I am forever a fan of dorky stuff like this. Here are some of the first and last lines from books I pulled at semi-random from the first titles that came to mind.

First and Last Lines

Tombs of Atuan, Ursula K. LeGuin

First:

“Come home, Tenar! Come home!”

Last:

Gravely she walked beside him up the white streets of Havnor, holding his hand, like a child coming home.

Wind In The Willows, Kenneth Grahame

First:

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home.

Last:

This was base libel on Badger, who, though he cared little about Society, was rather fond of children; but it never failed to have its full effect.

Certain Dark Things, Silvia Moreno-Garcia

First:

Collecting garbage sharpens the senses.

Last:

In dreams, he smiled too.

The House of Asterion, Jorge Luis Borges

First:

I know they accuse me of arrogance, and perhaps of misanthropy, and perhaps of madness.

Last:

“Would you believe it Ariadne?” Said Theseus. “The Minotaur scarcely defended himself.”

Steel Remains, Richard K. Morgan

First:

When a man you know to be of sound mind tells you his recently deceased mother has just tried to climb in his bedroom window and eat him, you only have two basic options.

Last:

He waited, patiently, for the flicker of blue fire to show itself again, and for whatever else might come with it.

And why not, here’s the first and last lines from The Audacity Gambit.

First:

Emily took a quick headcount before clapping her hands for attention.

Last:

We’ve got money, she thought. And I’ve got my name.

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