20 March, 2012

Having the First Word

As part of our descent into middle-age, my husband and I like to listen to the radio when we go to bed. Our preferred entertainment is cosy crime, but last night there was a distinct lack of 1930s murders about and so we settled for listening to a show by the comic poet Tim Key. Tim was on a quest to find out what made the perfect opening line to a novel. Far from drifting off to sleep, I found myself beginning to fret about the first line of my current novel. Is it too pretentious? Too boring? Too short?

I love writing first lines. There's something terrifying and satisfying about getting off the starting blocks. I can still remember the first lines of stories I wrote years ago in some cases...

"The first time I killed my mother was August 1979."
"Ernest looked left again and then right once more before stepping out into the road; he always looked twice before crossing, always waited for the green man."
"I found God in the wordsearch today, Margaret."
"We knew it was The Gas."

Some of the stories were prize winners, others complete flops, but I still have an affection of those lines - the good ones and the clumsier ones. They are full of intent. Even my first attempt at a short story with its slightly bland, "On a clear day you can see all the way to France", is defined and measured by those first few words.

Of course, terrible first lines can be just as memorable as great ones. The most infamous first-line ever has to be by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.
"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."
I had heard that there was a competition in his honour, where entrants are asked to write an awful first line for an imaginary novel, but until listening to Tim Key, I hadn't realised that the much-mocked line itself was actual a rather clever joke about the way one of the characters speaks.

I've written before about how wonderful the opening to A Tale of Two Cities is, and I'm sure I only need to mention books like 1984, Pride and Prejedice, Moby Dick and Rebecca, to bring to your mind a few other famous first lines. Oddly enough, it is the last of these that has always stuck with me the most.
"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."
I don't know why that's always haunted me, but it has.

I'd love to hear your favourite first lines - both ones you've written and ones you've read. What makes a good first line? Do you find them easy to write? Does the book you're reading now have a good first line? Share it with me - I find them irresistable!

I'm off to continue fretting over line one, page one...


  1. "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." (Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell) From the clocks striking thirteen wre immediately know that this is not the world we know.

  2. One our writing exercises is to be given a random sentence and write a short story using it. My favourite one is 'where did all this water come from?'

    1. Oh the possibilities!

      Funnily enough, just after I wrote this post, the organisation that runs NaNoWriMo released a blog post about what makes a good first line! Great minds...

  3. My favourite and quite recent by another author is from 'Gone Tomorrow' by Lee Child. The line is, 'Suicide bombers are easy to spot.'
    From my own short stories I would opt for the opening line from 'Photographic Memory' which goes, 'Jason't eyes narrowed as he peered through the smoke at the remnants of the armoured truck.'
    For me the first line ranks up there with the title because even after being caught by the title a lot of people will tease themselves with a glimpse at the opening line.


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