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!

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5 Responses

  1. Heather says:

    A few of mine: ‘It wasn’t a good day to die.’ or ‘I’ve never liked Monday mornings.’

    As you can see from these, I’m rather fond of short, snappy first lines and I tend to follow them up with a longer, more impacting one.

    I love all the ones you’ve selected above though, especially the first line of Rebecca!

    Some great first lines: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” From 1984.

    “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” From 100 Years of Solitude.

  2. CowTheEagle says:

    Actually I prefer when the authors don’t try to be tryhards with their opening lines. I kind of like easing into the story.

    My basic rule of thumb is typically: The tone of the opening line and first chapter should be less than or equal to the intensity of the rest of the book, unless you are trying to be ironic. I can’t tell you how annoying it is when a first chapter is exciting, then the rest of the book just fizzles out.

    Just the layman’s opinion of the book-learnin’ crowd.

  3. Puckerman says:

    I like reading strong opening lines.

    Some of my favorites are:

    Most pretty girls have pretty ugly feet and so does Mindy Metelman, Lenore notices all of a sudden.
    –David Foster Wallace, “The Broom of the System”

    All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.
    –Leo Tolstoy, “Anna Karenina”

    You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.
    –Jay McInerney, “Bright Lights, Bright City”

    Context is everything
    –Jonathan Lethem, “Motherless Brooklyn”

    and my personal favorite,

    I’m seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies.
    –David Foster Wallace, “Infinite jest”

  4. beckiw says:

    I tend not to pay very much attention to first lines but I do sort of like a book to throw me in at the deep end.

    Off the top of my head I’d say the opening line of Harry Potter: ‘Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.’

    I just seem to always remember that one. If you know nothing about Harry Potter (like I didn’t when I was a kid) and how it’s about magic. That line would strike you as very odd!

    I’ve always loved the general opening of The BFG and found that the opening line is: ‘Sophie couldn’t sleep.’

    It’s sort of brilliant really.

    Aaand then I love Trudi Canavan and I love the opening of The Magician’s Guild: ‘It is said, in Imardin, that the wind has a soul, and that it wails through the narrow city streets because it is grieved by what it finds there.’

  5. Mobile Cadi says:

    Whenever first lines come up, I just remember the one that I think is Charlie’s favourite:

    The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

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