The NPR podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour had a wonderful segment recently about first impressions in pop culture, with panelist Glen Weldon talking about the great first lines in literature. I particularly loved his analysis of “Call me Ishmael” and his breakdown of the different functions of first lines. He has additional material posted on his Tumblr, including several other examples and he asked listeners to mention the first lines that they loved and I figured that I can take a crack at it.
I love first lines. I pick them apart, not only in other people’s writing but also in my own. A well-turned phrase, a particularly scintillating piece of dialogue–for me, it signals the writer’s capacity for wordcraft and I end up feeling let down by a less than stellar first page. In fact, I have started to disdain this a little bit about myself, because I’ve found that overly elaborate first lines can end up being mere affectations that the rest of the book’s two hundred or so pages cannot sustain.
Here are ten openings that I want to talk about from books I’ve loved. Obviously I’m projecting what I already know about the book into my interpretations, but I still hope people find this exercise interesting, regardless. I tried the find examples across the spectrum, from starkly simple description, personality-filled first person narration, to even works that mimic other types of documentation.
Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susannah Clarke
This is a remarkably un-showy way of introducing a novel that in some editions clock in at 1,000 pages. “Some years ago” establishes that the nameless narrator telling the story is removed from it on some level. Using York as the setting means that it’s a city novel, not the usual milieu of a big-ass fantasy. Furthermore, Clarke uses the word “magician”–not wizard or sorcerer or mage–to make the entire exercise sound silly or mundane. Magicians pull rabbits out of hats, it implies; they’re not particularly impressive.
The morning express bloated with passengers slowed to a crawl, then lurched forward suddenly, as though to resume full speed.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Aside from serving as an immediate, concrete image design to spark the imagination, trains have a more significant role in this novel beyond the first scene. Notice the way that Mistry uses the commas in this sentence. Putting one after “crawl” makes the reader pause naturally, so when it is followed by an abrupt clause the reader gets the similar feeling of being jolted. The liberal use of adverbs and adjectives also telegraph that this is going to be a somewhat sprawling novel akin to the British novels of the 19th century, providing some thematic contrast with its setting.
Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth.
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Hammett is a master of the journalistic third person POV, his sentences sometimes even more ruthlessly spare than Hemingway. The adjectives he uses (“long” and “bony”) are completely stripped of editorialization, and only “flexible” leads to some ambiguity. Was that purely descriptive or does it imply some sort of jocularity in Spade’s expression? Using “v” as a descriptor signals that this novel’s language will be informal and direct to the point.
“So now get up.”
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
I don’t quite know how to explain why I think this four-word sentence is one of the best openings I’ve ever read. Of course, the subsequent paragraphs are necessary to say that the scene is a fistfight between a father and a son, but the dialogue alone is still significant by itself. Coming into Wolf Hall as a person in the modern era means that you are already carrying a lot of baggage via cultural osmosis. You expect a historical novel about the Tudor era to start with brocade gowns and banquet tables, not with the a scene between a drunk butcher and the infamous Thomas Cromwell as a kid. It is basically signalling you to not get too invested in your assumptions, because the novel’s intention is to break them all down.
Using “so” as the very first word puts the reader directly in the middle of an ongoing action. It also introduces a thread that runs throughout Cromwell’s life, as he often finds himself felled or humbled in some way and must scramble to find his footing and fight again.
The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom.
Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers
You can look at it as merely a bridge between Harriet Vane’s introduction into the Peter Wimsey universe and the wonderful events of Gaudy Night, but I have a soft spot for this little vacation of a novel and it’s wonderful tongue-in-cheek opening. It is an indirect allusion to Lord Peter’s romantic overtures in Strong Poison after Harriet is found innocent in the murder of her former lover.
Aside from being immediately funny, it is a sly wink to the seemingly forgone conclusion that a romance between the to of them will happen eventually. I also love that Sayers used “manly bosom” here, as it pokes fun a little at how Wimsey is hardly the image of a manly romantic hero.
“Purely out of interest,” Eponymous Clent asked, “what so bewitches you about the idea of the traveling life?”
Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge
I’m sometimes disappointed by the writing style in the middle grade and YA novels that I read, even some of the ones I end up loving. Frances Hardinge, however, writes sentences that are a genuine pleasure to read. The springy dialogue introduces the idea that this novel is romp-filled adventure. The reader can infer that two people are already in the middle of a conversation about traveling together, and it’s possible that they don’t even know each other.
The name “Eponymous Clent” also signals some fantasy-esque setting, but not a heavily medieval one that something like Vathek the Unvanquished would’ve evoked.
Nine months Landsman’s been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
This sentence screams “THIS IS A MURDER MYSTERY” in its very first line as a way to ground the reader in this odd speculative fiction novel. Jews in Alaska talking in hardboiled Yiddish slang may be a tough premise for a hapless reader to swallow, but a corpse is still a corpse. The fact that Landsman has spent nine months living in a hotel reveals much about his character, even as it opens the door a lot more questions, especially since the verb “flopping” makes him seem wishy washy. The opening takes another, more comical turn by the end, implying that his fellow hotel residents have the tendency to inconvenience people by getting themselves murdered.
Sidenote: giving your character the name “Landsman” just imbues him with a lot of Old Testament baggage from the get-go. That’s a lot of Moses in one surname right there.
People do not give credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.
True Grit by Charles Portis
Portis could’ve made a career of churning perfectly wrought TV show pitches in Hollywood if this sentence is anything to go by. Mattie Ross’s pragmatic, unadorned statement of her extraordinary experience tells the reader that she is not given to telling tall tales and she doesn’t care overmuch if you believe her story. “Although I will say it did not happen everyday” is like the textual equivalent of a shrug here, because badass fourteen-year-old girls don’t need no validation.
True Grit is one of the most perfect First Person POV novels I’ve ever read, and I’m the kind of person actively fights first person POVs in the beginning. The story builds itself from this wonderful foundation.
From the Archives of Hain. Transcript of Ansible Document 01-01101-934-2-Gethen: To the Stabile of Ollul: Report from Genly Ai, First Mobile on Gethen/Winter, Hainish Cycle 93, Ekumenical Year 1490-97.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
This is technically the book’s first header (If you want to get nitpicky, the actual first line is: I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of imagination.) but I wanted to highlight this part because it’s a wonderful exercise in SFF worldbuilding. The Left Hand of Darkness is structured as a transcript of Genly Ai’s series of audio reports during his exploratory mission to a far-flung planet. This text establishes the sort of testimonial nature Genly’s story, where he is literally and figuratively bearing witness.
The specifics here signal that this is far-future science fiction–it’s easy to rule out fantasy by its structure. Despite the morass of opaque proper nouns, however, the idea is still pretty clear. This document is stored in an Archive and had been addressed to someone called the Stabile (possibly a superior?). The sender is called Genly Ai and he begins his report in the winter of a specific, albeit strange, year.
I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well.
My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk
This is the book I’m currently reading, but I’m already in love with this opening. My Name Is Red has a Rashomon-like structure with a wide range of characters who give out their testimony in a quest to find the murderer in their midst. Just like The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, this one also has the bat-signal of a murder mystery, but the corpse here takes control of the story before anyone else.
“Nothing but a corpse now” says that the narrator has a high regard for himself prior to his death and that his reduction to a mere dead body is a step down for him. Who is he talking to? Is this a monologue spoken into the vast nothingness, or is he communicating to someone specific from beyond the veil? Or is he talking to the reader in one of those meta stories that break the fourth wall. A lot of these ambiguities don’t really clear up even by the end of the corpse’s introduction, which is why this first sentence is such a wonderful encapsulation of it.
Let me know if you have first lines that you particularly love! I used Jane Austen’s iconic first line from Pride and Prejudice in the title, and oh boy, I could probably write a whole post about its effect in pop culture.