Thursday, August 22, 2019

It is a truth universally acknowledged ...

By Catriona

"Readers often read the opening few lines or page to a book before deciding to buy. What makes an opening sentence stand out above the rest? Give examples of openings, including your own, that you believe work brilliantly. Any tips or lessons learned for new authors about what to avoid on that first page?"

Funnily enough, it was today I got an email from the organisers of Desert Sleuths' Write Now! with the rules, deadlines and - most importantly - the 47 entries in this year's first line competition, which I'm co-judging. (I haven't looked at any of them before writing this blog.)

Also today, I paid a visit to the brand-new Portobello Bookshop, and overheard one of organisers of the Portobello Book Festival discussing, with one of the booksellers, a plan to have a composer write a piece of music inspired by ten first lines. I can't quite imagine it but I'm looking forward to hearing it.

So "What makes a great first line?" is a question I'm going to be asking myself a lot int he next wee while. 

So what makes a great line?

One of my lifelong favourites is from Dodie Smith's I Capture The Castle

"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." 

This is so beloved a first line that, when the narrator in the film adaptation said it, the entire audience (me included) breathed out and settled back ready to enjoy the screening.

What makes it good? It's straightforward and it's got a frankness to it, but it raises a question. Why are you sitting in a sink? You read the second sentence hoping you will find out. And you do find out. So straight away you know this is a narrator you can trust. But while that second sentence answers one question, it raises another. So you read the third ...

Some people might have trouble with the way the narrator admits that this is a story being written. I don't. It's the mildest of mild metafiction, and besides, Cassie really is writing - she keeps a diary. 

Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night A Traveler, on the other hand, begins: "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If On A Winter's Night A Traveler." And I always wonder how often that one sentence makes itself untrue. But then I'm a noted Philistine. 

I don't think you need to be overly clever to make a reader keep going. Sometimes, all that's needed is to start as if in the middle. A great example of this is Barbara Comyns' A Vet's Daughter (horrible title, but that's a different blog), which opens on the line: "A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me while I was thinking of something else." We never see the man again or find out what it was the narrator was thinking of, but it doesn't matter; we're plopped right into her life there and then.

But then some wonderful first lines do the exact opposite, taking a wide view of the terrain, setting out the stall for the novel. "I was born twice: first as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy in an emergency room near Petsokey, Michigan in August of 1974." is how Jeffrey Eugenides kicks off 800 brilliant pages of Middlesex. It's got something of Dickens about it, and it takes a lot of confidence to jam in two dates and three place names, but what a promisory note. To show us a newborn baby and tell us she's going to have to deal with something, usually counselled and prepared for, in an emergency room? If you don't want to make sure that baby is okay, your heart's not working.   

But then some wonderful first lines, in complete contrast, creep up and whisper in a reader's ear. Alice Walker's "You better not never tell nobody but God." in The Color Purple is among the best of these, in my opinion. In fact, I think it's among the best first lines of any: high stakes hinted at, a strong voice addressing you directly, an irresistible pull into the heart of a life . . . if anyone can come up with a better first line than that, then slap my thigh and call me Ishmael. 

Snagged at the Porty Bookshop yesterday. (Plus evidence of rare Scottish sunshine).


Kristopher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kristopher said...

"slap my thigh and call me Ishmael" Oh Catriona, how I love thee!

But I agree, that Alice Walker line is a gem.

I've been re-reading Toni Morrison since her passing and she has two excellent openings as well:

From SULA:

"In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Madallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood."


"They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time."

But probably my favorite opening, a bit more than a line is much less erudite.

From Jackie Collins' HOLLYWOOD HUSBANDS:

"There were two major events taking place in Hollywood on a cool weekend in February 1986.
The first was a funeral.
The second, a wedding.
Some people felt obliged to attend both. Although, of course, they changed outfits for each occasion."

Brenda Chapman said...

So there's a first line contest?! You give great examples of first lines that work but none from your own writing. Do you have a favorite first line from your own

Kathy Reel said...

When there is a memorable opening line, it is a special thrill to me as a reader. I have a couple more to add to the fantastic ones already mentioned.

From Julia Spencer-Fleming's first Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne novel, In the Bleak Midwinter, is the first line, "It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby."

The whole first couple of paragraphs from Lori Lansens' The Girls is unforgettable, with the first line being, "I have never looked into my sister's eyes." The main characters in this book are conjoined twins, and I was never more surprised at loving characters than these two with whom I couldn't physically relate, but whose story was incredible.

Speaking of beginnings, I am a big fan of prologues, and Catriona, you are a master of the prologue. In The Day She Died and The Child Garden I am absolutely chilled by those beautifully written prologues. And, you have a first line in Chapter One of Go to My Grave that is perfection, too. "The house was a held breath" is, well, breathtaking.

catriona said...

There you go, Brenda. Kathy did it for me! If I remember rightly, the first line in The Child Garden is "It was far from silent in the dark wood."

Brenda Chapman said...

Beautiful first lines, Catriona. Thank you Kathy!

Kathy Reel said...

Brenda, if anyone ever tells me they don't like prologues, I will tell them to read Catriona's because I'll know they haven't if they can say that. And, her first lines in those prologues set the deliciously creepy tone, like the one Catriona noted from The Child Garden.