There are an abundance of “musts” when it comes to writing books if you want to draw, cultivate, and keep readers.
You must write what you know. You must do your research. You must write for a certain amount of time each day. You must give up your preconceptions. You must put yourself on a deadline. Your must market yourself.
Some musts are truer than others. Some are complete bunk (write what you know, fiction writer!). I didn’t even include them all (my favorite overused advice: you must not use adverbs).
And you must have a great opening line.
On opening lines from The Guardian, 13 May 2017.
So, no mixed messages in those directions from The Guardian at all.
This week, I’m wondering how the first lines from some of my favorite books measure up. Did they pull me in by opening up my rib cage with that first sentence, or was it other elements: a slow build of the first chapter(s), the reputation of the work or author, or intriguing characters? Perhaps it was some combination of these factors.
My question this week is, is there power in the fabled First Line?
Title Page from Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, 1813.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Likely one of the most famous first lines, I’ll admit it’s a favorite of mine because it’s so quotable and sucks me in from the start. It makes me wonder if this proverb is supposed to be written from the point of view of said rich, single man or the ladies wishing to be the wife. Tell me more, Jane.
Northanger Abbey, by Jane Auste, 1817.
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.
This line practically begged me to read more about this woman. And honestly, no one deserves to be a heroine more than Catherine Morland, do they?
A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, 1859.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
One of the quintessential opening lines for me, not so much that it tells me anything about the book specifics, but more all the settings to come. This opening line set the stage for me – with the Mannettes, the French Revolution and Reign of Terror, and even poor Sydney Carton.
The Odyssey of Homer.
Tell me, O Muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy
Quite possibly the story to come summed up in one sentence. And it’s a doozy of an adventure.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C. S. Lewis, 1952.
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
That’s all I need to know. I’m sold.
The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, 1982.
You better not never tell nobody but God.
This opening line should have been my clue to grab a box of tissues or three, and readied me to absolutely hate some characters while being unable to tear my eyes away from the printed page. PS: the movie was robbed on Oscar Night.