Hurray, I’ve finished my latest novel! One hundred thousand words of carefully crafted narrative. From Afghanistan’s last wilderness, to the rugged ranges of Australia’s great eastern escarpment – an epic tale of love, loss and redemption. Writing it was like running an emotional marathon.
I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. But when I began my rewrites – horror of horrors! A boring first paragraph stared me in the face. I needed to fix it, and fast. The manuscript is due at my publisher in two weeks. How do I hook my reader with that first line? Sydney Smith and I were down at Phillip Island on a writing retreat. We began a game – take a random novel off the shelf, read the first line, and rate it out of ten.
And what an eye-opener it was! So many of them started with a reference to the weather. About sixty percent, don’t you think, Jenny? Descriptions of weather aren’t in themselves bad. If they strike a note of tension, they can be very good. A storm can be great if it opens, say, a haunted house story or a tale of pursuit and capture. But if the weather is there simply because the writer can’t think of a better way to open their novel, it’s Dullsville. Here are two examples:
-‘The day is hot, the air thick with the smells of the rain-forest.’ The Inevitability Of Stars, Kathryn R Lyster
– ‘He could hear nothing while the storm lasted, everything blotted out by the steady drumming of the rain on the iron roof.’ Papio, Victor Kelleher
– ‘They threw me off the hay truck about noon.’ The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain
– ‘We should head to a bar and celebrate.’ Bared To You, Sylvia Day
– ‘The manhunt extended across more than one hundred light years and eight centuries.‘ A Deepness In The Sky Vernor Vinge.
I know many readers like this. I never have. But, as my friends are at pains to tell me, I’m weird. You can’t go by what I like.
Then there are the opening sentences that were just plain dull for no particular reason. I opened Sylvester, one of my favourite Georgette Heyer novels, and there before me lay a sentence utterly devoid of thrill:
‘Sylvester stood in the window of his breakfast-parlour, leaning his hands on the ledge, and gazing out upon a fair prospect.’
I forgive her because her novels were amongst my early teachers. If I have any skill at all as a writer, it’s thanks to her. I learned wit from her. I learned the long and vivid character introduction from her. I learned the thrust and parry of dialogue between hero and heroine from her. And let us praise the heroine who can take care of herself. That’s not Ms Heyer’s invention, but she ran with it as no one had before. So I tried another Georgette Heyer, this one The Corinthian.
‘The company, ushered by a disapproving butler into the yellow saloon of Sir Richard Wyndham’s house in St James’ Square, comprised two ladies and one reluctant gentleman.’
Better. The disapproving butler, and especially the one reluctant gentleman, strike notes of tension. The reader is invited to wonder why they’re there, and why the gentleman is reluctant. But it’s too long thanks to the nonsense about Richard’s posh address. Still, it’s a well-balanced sentence. Ms Heyer was a prose stylist of the first order.
But when I look at first sentences, I want something more. I want a sentence that snags me on a strong yet delicate hook with a barb on the end that hurts if I try to wriggle free.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” The Dark Tower, Stephen King
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
“He shouldn’t have come back.” Dark Country, Bronwyn Parry
“When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable child ever seen.” The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
“It is said that in death, all things become clear; Ensei Tankado now knew it was true.” Digital Fortress, Dan Brown
“The idea that love is not enough, is a particularly painful one.” The Unknown Terrorist, Richard Flanagan.
“Every summer, Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife.” Waiting: A novel, Ha Jin
“Bett-Bett must have been a Princess, for she was a King’s niece, and if that does not make a princess of anyone, it ought to do so!” The Little Black Princess, Aeneus Gunn
“So I’m standing at my front gate and I’m soaked and it’d been the worst day in history.” Rough Diamond, Kathryn Ledson
“I see my father with that shovel.” The Woods, Harlan Coben
“This was the way a world died.” Ice Guard Steve Lyons
And my personal favourite: “All stories are about wolves.” The Blind Assassin Margaret Atwood
Stephen King proudly boasts that he spends months crafting a first line. What do you think, Sydney? What is it about these lines that made them stand out?
I go with most of your choices, Jenny. I have to say, though, that Richard Flanagan’s contribution strikes me as weak, thanks to its construction and verb choice. “The idea that love is not enough, is a particularly painful one.” It might read better if it went something like this: “It hurts to know that love is not enough.” The construction here is stronger first because of the verb: in his version, he uses “is”, which is a nothing verb, while mine is “hurts”, which throbs with vitality. The position of the verb matters, too: mine is the second word in the sentence, which is a strong place to put it, right after the subject pronoun. His verb is buried in the middle of the sentence. Verbs are engines: they drive sentences. The stronger the verb, the stronger the drive. The fact that his version uses “is” twice merely compounds the problem.
Stephen King’s contribution is good: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” First, it’s about pursuit. Predators pursue their prey. At the same time, the moral ambiguity threatens to tumble it on its head: the prey wears black, the colour of villainy. Does the gunslinger pursue him because he’s done something evil? A two-hook sentence, the moral and the visceral, is an embarrassment of riches. Maybe I should read this novel!
As for Margaret Atwood’s selection, “All stories are about wolves”, the initial hook is the sheer mind-blowing breadth of the statement. That very fact caused me to pause and ponder. “Wolves” is a metaphor; she means all stories are about predators, and therefore, about their prey, since a predator is nothing without the creatures it kills and devours (wolfs down). In which case, contrary to first impressions, Ms Atwood is absolutely right. And yet I can’t overlook the whiff of facetiousness in the sentence either. It begins to look as though I personally like a sentence whose layers can be unpacked and spread on the table.
Interestingly, Margaret Atwood’s line holds very true for my latest novel! I don’t expect a first line to do as much as you do, Sydney. It must hook the reader, true, but it can do this in a variety of ways.
– Summarising the conflict, like the first line of Lolita.
– Stating a general truth, like Leo Tolstoy and Richard Flanagan do. (I do like Flanagan’s first line, despite its double use of ‘is‘).
– Stating a simple yet interesting fact. “I had a farm in Africa,” Out of Africa Isak Dinesen. I also love the ‘They threw me off the hay-truck about noon.’ line 🙂
– Establishing an intriguing voice, Lolita again.
– Or a line that surprises, like Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
These work for me. And thanks to this fun research and analysis, I now have my new opening line – one of the encapsulating-the-conflict variety. Now you’ll all have to buy my new book next year to find out what it is!
For your chance to win a two-pack of my books (your choice!) just leave a comment telling us your favourite first line from a novel, and which two books you’d like to win. The first line can be one that we’ve already mentioned, or a new one altogether. The prize will be drawn on the 4th of October. (Aust & NZ residents only)