Writer and Producer

Ten Great First Lines

This is the opening line of a piece about opening lines.

It’s not a great opening line, and I don’t expect it ever to be quoted on its own, but it does at least tell you what this piece is about, which is one of the many functions of an opening.

Only a complete fool would take the opening lines of various novels he’s read, and pick the ten or so ‘best’ based purely on how they stand up by themselves.

So I’ll begin.

Here are my top openers, in no particular order. I’ll start with the line, then tell you where it’s from (but you will recognise a lot of them).

Number 10:

They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.

We’re dropped right into a fascinating crisis. We know what the problem is, it’s happening right now, and there’s no cheap withholding of information.  It’s also very much what the book is all about so there’s nothing contrived about it. The rest of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach completely delivers the promise of the first sentence.

Number 9:

I found it hard working really long hours when I was my own boss. The boss kept giving me the afternoon off. Sometimes he’d give me the morning off as well.

This is not only funny in itself, it very neatly encapsulates the theme of the novel, which is about a grown up man shirking adult responsibilities, and it’s from John O’Farrell’s first novel, The Best A Man Can Get.

Number 8:

Dearest Humans,

Just two words, but a great opener. It tells us a non-human is writing, but more importantly, the word dearest rather than dear tells us it’s a non-human who likes humans, and is rather sweet. Who’s not going to want to read on?  It’s from Me Cheeta by James Lever and it’s narrated by a Hollywood chimp. I didn’t find the rest of the book quite engaging enough to finish, but what an ice-breaker.

Number 7

It is a truth universally acknowledged…

You know the rest. Jane Austen’s opening to Pride and Prejudice is the most famous first line of any English novel, closely followed by Dickens’s opening to A Tale of Two Cities. But is it really that great? Or, like the Mona Lisa and Giles Brandreth, is it famous for being famous? The same applies to the most exulted American novel, Moby Dick, which begins: Call Me Ishmael.  Not much of an opener, and as for the novel itself, what a stinker. Still, all those both books have sold well, I’m told.

Number 6:

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

Not sure about this one. It seems to presage a wacky narrative in which really mad and ‘surreal’ things happen ­– in other words, the very worst kind of comic novel. Thankfully, the rest of Iain Bank’s The Crow Road is really rather sensible.

Number 5:

2.

Not so much a sentence as number, it’s the chapter heading: 2.  Beginning a book with what seems to be the second chapter is arresting, confusing, peculiar, and tells us quite a lot about the narrator, in this case, a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who is obsessed with numbers. It’s the opening of A Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon.

Number 3:

It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

These days, of course, there’s nothing especially funny about a man falling in love with a male captain, but I’m guessing in 1953 it was considered pretty whacky, so I’m keeping it. As for Heller’s choice for the title: Catch 22, what was he thinking?

Number 2

‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.’

I imagine ‘light of my life’ wasn’t the commonplace endearment it is now, so we can overlook that. There’s something missing, though, isn’t there?  The absence of an exclamation mark is very noticeable ­– to me at least.  I suppose being in love with a 13 year-old isn’t something you want to shout about, but perhaps more tellingly, it suggests that this is not a joyful exclamation, but something more melancholy. The name, Lolita, is just right. I doubt Nabokov’s Cheryl would have worked as well.

Number 42:

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small, unregarded yellow sun.

Douglas Adams was an exponent (possibly even inventor) of what I call inverse bathos (if there’s a proper literary term for it I’d like to know).  As you know, a typical bathetic line goes from the profound to the trivial, such as ‘A tale of love, loss and cupcakes’.  The phrase The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, does just the opposite: the small scale and commonplace ‘hitchhiker’ precedes the more elevated ‘galaxy’.  It’s the same with Adam’s other famous titles: The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and the Salmon of Doubt. All essentially the same joke.  He uses the device in these first lines by putting the word ‘unfashionable’ before ‘western spiral arm of the Galaxy.’ Even if you know what he’s doing, it’s still a great opener.

Number 1

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from unquiet dreams he found himself transformed into a gigantic insect.

I love the way the reader is asked to believe something that’s ostensibly impossible right from the off.  No explanation is given, no scientific mumbo jumbo. It’s just something that happens. Kafka’s Metamorphosis remains one of my favourite books.

And what about last lines? I don’t think last lines are in the least important so I don’t bother trying to write good ones.

 

P.S.

I’m naturally tempted to mention, at least in passing, the opening to my new comic novel, Brian Gulliver’s Travels. But modesty forbids it. Unfortunately, I’m also desperate to sell the thing, so forbidden by modesty or not, here it is:

At half past ten, nine days after my 21st birthday, I made my way to a psychiatric hospital in Highgate, North London, to meet my father, who had been missing for six years. In the two weeks since his reappearance, he had sent me numerous emails in which he described “extraordinary worlds, and curious beings”.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Brian-Gullivers-Travels-ebook/dp/B00DOI5VIQ