by Troy Howell
One of the habits I have as a writer is to randomly pick up a book—old or new, classic or contemporary, popular or unsung—to read its first line. (I also read the last line, to touch the two together.)
Reading the first line of a book is like meeting someone, or opening a gift. There’s anticipation, a moving forward into something new and unknown. While the cover gives you an overall impression (whether true to the story or not), the first line begins the intimacy between writer and reader. You hear the voice for the first time. Every word should count, as in poetry, chosen carefully, perfectly. The first line should be flawless. It should also be a promise that the book is worth the read.
To begin this series, I’ve chosen Holes, by Louis Sachar, a book that inspired me while I continued with my own contemporary tale set in the American West, The Dragon of Cripple Creek.
There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.
This first line is brusque, straight. And right away we’re given a mystery; we want to keep reading for the answer. (If there is no lake, why is it called Camp Green Lake? What happened to the lake? What is Camp Green Lake, anyway?) You can almost hear between each word, if you’re paying attention, a slightly quivering, cautionary voice saying, “You do not want to go there. Turn back now.” Yet you cannot resist.
This opening line is also a contradiction. Things are not as they seem. The deeper we plunge into the dusty account of the lake, the more we find: The boys are not digging holes to enhance their character, as they’ve been told; the warden is not there for their discipline; even its historical villain-heroine is someone entirely opposite from who she originally was. The more shovelfuls of words you remove, the more you discover.
And why green? Not only is there no lake, there is no green (except for an enviously-eyed spot that has the warden’s name on it). We find that the green of Camp Green Lake is actually treasure, lots of it. Symbolically, it’s green after all.
This first line is a deceptively simple hook, and we readily take the bait.