Friday, January 9, 2015

She had me at "It is a truth"

by Catriona.

Do opening lines matter and what are some of the best ones?

I don't think you need to grab a reader with the very first sentence. At least, as a reader of paper books I can't imagine going to a book shop or library, selecting a volume, bringing it home, lighting a lamp, making a cup of tea and opening the book . . . then packing it in at the first full stop if I wasn't swept away. I can imagine that reading off a screen might be different, since we've trained ourselves to tune out stuff on screens in case we go barking mad from the overload. (Readers of e-books, I'd love to know.) In short, two ropey paragraphs on page one might make me close a book and look over at the TBR pile, but not an unspectacular first sentence, no.

As to my favourites: this got me thinking. I've got five platinum-plated, tip-top favourite books, the books that made me a writer - I'm sure I must have mentioned them here before - and pondering this question I realised that I think I know all the first sentences. They're mostly short and they're all pretty great.

Here goes. (You need to trust that I'm not looking.)

1. Gone With The Wind: Scarlet O'Hara was not beautiful.

2. Catch-22: It was love at first sight.

3. I Capture The Castle: I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

4. The Water-method Man: Her gynaecologist recommended him to me.


5. Pride and Prejudice - all together now - It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

How'd I do?

5 is word perfect but I missed a comma. 4 is word perfect and John Irving spells gynaecologist like me! 3 Nailed it. 2 Nailed it. 1 Slightly failed because that's just the first clause and the sentence goes on ", but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were."

I'm setting P&P aside because genius isn't helpful here - but the other four all have something in common, I think. They all make you want to read the second sentence.  They've all got a 'Huh?" in them. You're in a sink? Whose gynaecologist? Someone's falling in love! (Yossarian and the chaplain, I'll grant you. But still.) Who's this Scarlet O'Hara then?

So then I got to wondering if the first words I read by my favourite living writers were also short, grabby little gems.

My first Joyce Carol Oates novel was Middle Age. I picked it up in a second-hand bookshop on my first trip to the US and I thought I'd discovered an obscure writer who I happened to quite like and - who knows - might have written another one. Its opening sentence is "Is this fair?"

Bingo. No one could read those three words and stop.

My first Stephen King was Salem's Lot and I'm still shaking (He was upstairs. Brrr.) Its opening sentence is "Almost everyone thought the man and boy were father and son." And there goes another short-lived theory. I'm not sure that sentence would necessarily pull me onto the next one.  But something did.


Gram said...

"Where's the beer?"
-- the first lines Wolfe ever utters in his very first appearance in Fer-de-Lance
I love this one!

Lori Rader-Day said...

Stephen King is a genius, too. You can set his example aside.

Kathy Reel said...

Some favorite first lines from some favorite books:

From The Girls by Lori Lansens -- "I have never looked into my sister's eyes. I have never bathed alone." (Sorry I had to include the 1st two.)

From The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King -- "The world had teeth and it could bite you with them anytime it wanted."

From The Divide by Nicholas Evans (NOT Nicolas Sparks!) -- "They rose before dawn and stepped out beneath a moonless sky aswarm with stars."

From Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury -- "It was a pleasure to burn."

Meredith Cole said...

I like that your memorable lines are short (except Jane Austen, of course)!

Catriona McPherson said...

Lori, you're right -
Oates and King are geniuses too. And, Kathy - YES! That opener from The Girls is a belter.

Meredith - I think I was overstepping when I shortened GWTW, but it kind of proves the point.

Susan C Shea said...

I've been raving about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler this week and went back to read the first line. Not something that would catch you up, except that even in the first couple of lines, the character of the narrator is unwavering and it's that style and perspective even in a couple of lines that drew me in.

Allan J. Emerson said...

A couple that stick in my mind:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. George Orwell, 1984

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley

Triss said...

Allan Emerson added to of my favorites (in addition to the peerless Jane of course). I've always been partial to this classic: "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter."
And here's a a terrific one (two, really) from a recent book. Hooked me right in: Lucky Us, by Amy Bloom:

“My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us.”