It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...*First lines are difficult and fun. Just like the rest of writing.
First lines are important. They should seduce your reader, make it impossible for her to stop reading and draw her into the paragraph, page, chapter, and ultimately the book. Most of the advice I've ever seen on first lines is that they should pack a wallop with dialogue or action. Sure...with reservations. Have the boulder roll down the hillside toward the happy family picnic, the car blow up, the groom walk out of the church leaving the bride at the altar--if it's going to be that sort of book. Quite honestly the idea of a book going on in that sort of high dramatic vein makes me want to go and lie down with a nice cup of tea and fan myself.
We're talking about seduction, remember. The word seduction derives from the Latin word to lead. So I thought I'd pick out a few successful first lines and try and figure out what makes them work.
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier). Read it aloud and feel the rhythm: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It's iambic pentameters, which you might interpret as a heartbeat, or the tug and pull of the sea. du Maurier doesn't have to explain where or what Manderley is--she's established it as a place of dreams, mystery, regret. And the mysteries of the heart and of the sea drive the book. Absolutely perfect.
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. (Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte)Now this is a really kickass first sentence for any book, any time. It doesn't start with something like "Oh, Mr. Rochester! Why didn't you tell me about your mad wife in the attic?" Compare it, for example, to the beginning of David Copperfield, Dickens's most biographical novel:
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.
Dickens lays all his cards on the table: Here I am, this is what the book is about, and this is the sort of ironic voice you can expect to encounter. Oh, and never forget that you're reading a book and a work of fiction.
But Charlotte Bronte isn't nearly as helpful. We don't know who the characters are, where we are, or the setting. We have to figure that out. All we know is that someone can't do something, and if you think about it, that's what Jane Eyre is about--a woman whose formidable sense of will defines her, who will fight for what society will not allow her to do: Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart!
Here's the opening of my 2007 release The Rules of Gentility:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman of fortune and passable good looks amuses herself in London with fashion, philanthropic works, and flirtation, until a suitable gentleman makes an offer. I consider the pursuit of the bonnets and a husband fairly alike--I do not want to acquire an item that will wear out, or bore me after a brief acquaintance, and we must suit each other very well.
First off, it's a Jane Austen rip off. Pride and Prejudice begins, It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Now I thought I was being tremendously witty in paraphrasing Austen, but if I'd realized the whole mess of Austen-inspired books that would come out around the same time would do exactly the same thing, I think I would have chosen a different opening. I chose it, not because I was writing an Austen knock-off whoops, tribute, but because I wanted the reader to be immediately aware of where we were and the sort of rules that govern this particular society. I wanted my heroine Philomena to come across as a mix of hard-headedness and silliness, and to alert the reader that what they were seeing was what they were getting--no aspirations to an unlikely career or deep dark secrets.
My last, or possibly only, piece of wisdom is this: Don't worry too much about the first line when you start. Your first effort will be a placeholder. When you know a little more what your book is about you'll come up with an opener that will tease, seduce, entrance your reader.
Would anyone like to share their first line? Or a first line from a book you love?
*Dickens again. A Tale of Two Cities
Labels: first lines