Fiction Focus Week 3- Opening Lines
I know what you’re thinking- is she randomly jumping from one topic to another with no clear correlation between one and the next?
Yes. Yes I am.
Opening lines are something that really intrigue me- on YWS, so many prologues and Chapter Ones are posted with no follow-up that if you review fiction you read them about ten times more than you read anything else. Any seasoned fiction reviewer will have a discerning eye for a good first line.
The thing about opening lines is that they’re there to make an impression. They’re there to convince you to keep reading the story. They’re the welcoming committee and if they don’t make a good first impression, how well are you and the rest of the story going to get on?
Today I’ve decided to take three famous first lines (which coincidentally are from three of my favourite books, I wonder why that might be) and discuss why I think they’re good, and you can all weigh in on them!
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” –I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
I Capture the Castle is one of my absolute all-time favourite books, and this is how it starts. Even though on first glance it’s not a very informative line, it works on multiple levels. First of all, we immediately know who our protagonist is and why- they are speaking in first person, because they are writing this all down, and they are sitting in a kitchen sink. That much is clear. But of course, we want to know why they’re sitting in the kitchen sink, and what is the “this” that they’re writing?
Having read the book multiple times, the line becomes even more charming. Cassandra, the protagonist, is writing down the events of her life to improve her writing skills. The book is split into three parts as she has to change notebooks, and ends when she runs out of pages. But here at the beginning, nothing much is happening in Cassandra’s life. That’s because it’s the beginning of the story. And all she can write about is the here-and-now, and right now she is sitting in the kitchen sink and writing about her life. As the story goes on, Cassandra’s writing style matures. And the line remains wonderful because if you were writing about your own life, wouldn’t you start with something similar?
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” –Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
Doesn’t the line itself just have a dreamlike quality to it? That’s the first thing that strikes you, the whole sentence is onomatopoeic. Many authors want to start with a dream sequence, and du Maurier uses this line as a tool so she can’t be accused of cheating the readers. It immediately makes us ask questions- what is Manderley, why do you dream of going there? Rebecca is really a sort of love story with four players- the unnamed heroine, Maxim, his dead wife Rebecca, and their house: Manderley. From the get-go, we understand how important Manderley is to the heroine. Yes, it’s a love story, but the house is mentioned long before the man is. Putting its name in the first line, describing it long before Maxim, shows all that, and also immediately gives us a sense of what Manderley is, so that the setting is strong through the rest of the novel.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” –Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
I realise this is the second time in three weeks I’ve used P&P as an example, but how and ever, it’s a fantastic book. This is an incredibly famous line and to me it’s a bit of a mystery why. It’s everything you would usually tell an aspiring novelist not to do, it’s longwinded and complicated, it doesn’t start the story, it’s a generalisation- or is it? It’s told in that sort of lilting sarcastic voice that Austen uses so much when discussing the more ridiculous characters and ideas portrayed in her novel. And it still tells us a lot about the story- this is about single men with large fortunes, and their getting married. As a line, it doesn’t take itself too seriously at all, because of course it is not really “a truth universally acknowledged” but it sure sets up the rest of the story just fine.
So! Questions today. What do you make of these lines? What are your own favourite first lines, and why? What advice do you give to other writers about first lines?
And share the first line of your current work-in-progress here!