first lines are important. when i think of memorable ones, i remember them for different reasons. some are classic. like Dickens A TALE OF TWO CITIES: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,…” i’ve been fed this line as a classic, so i’ll pay homage to Dickens even though i think it’s didactic as hell. in truth, i enjoy a shorter, more intriguing first line. one that sets up a question in my mind; one that uses a word or turn of phrase that surprises me; one that plunges into the narrative; one that tells me about the narrator.
here are a couple of my favourite first lines.
- “They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.” Jean Rhys from WIDE SARGASSO SEA. a highly effective first line because it plunges into the narrative and sets up a question in my mind. who are they? what is the trouble? tension is contained within the first line and extends logically through the novel. i notice the phrase ‘white people’ and want to know more. stylistically, i prefer a more direct sentence and this is evident in the language. and when it comes to voice, i can hear the narrator in my head immediately and that’s what i listen for in writing. a voice in my head.
- “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell from 1984. again, it sets up the question ‘the clocks were striking thirteen’. what universe is this? signalled to an alternate reality, i’m engaged, ready for the magic.
- “I’d been working the Emergency room for about three weeks, I guess.” Denis Johnson from EMERGENCY. an effective first line because it establishes the story as recollection. the setting is firmly established. the narrator is questioning his memory so there’s suggestion of a potentially unreliable narrator. the setting itself is stressful in the way that ER is a highly stressful environment when it’s hopping. it’s boring as hell when no one walks through the doors but that’s another topic for another day. ask me later. i don’t have a clear grasp of the voice though. with Denis Johnson, that comes in the form of dialogue. that man is a fucking king of dialogue.
first lines are hard work. it takes time and practice to nail them down. difficult work. usually my first line is on the second page but that’s me.
here are a couple articles on first lines. i particularly enjoy Stephen King’s take on the subject: