Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Five Favourite Opening Lines

One of the classes that sticks most vividly in my mind from my university years, was one about first sentences. Whilst they are not the be all and end all of whether a book is going to be good, it’s always interesting to see how quickly a book can reel you in. Some take a few chapters where you’re unsure but are willing to give it a shot, some a few pages, but the best – the very, very best, have the first sentence down to a fine art.

I have plenty of books on my shelves that have perfectly lovely first sentences, not the attention grabbing awesome I’m talking about right now, and they are still my favourite books, but there is something very special when an author manages to pitch is so perfectly that they have hooked you within a line.

So I started looking at my favourites and why they’re my favourites and what it is about them that pulls me in, and I noticed that whilst they all have fantastic first lines the second and third one usually follow on so that it turns into a first line paragraph that draws me in to the point that I literally cannot not read the rest of the book and find out where the author wants to take me.
The first line magic is a rare magic that some authors have perfected, and I have found five of my favourites to share with you a little bit of why they’re awesome and why I love them so much.

My first will come as very little surprise to any of you who have read my review of this book, ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern. Her whole opening section gives me goosebumps every time I read it. Every, single, time. And I’ve read it, a lot. There is something very magical about it, almost as if the author is whispering the words in your ear as you read them. It feels as though she’s letting you in on a secret, something that isn’t commonly known, that is passed from person to person.

'The Circus arrives without warning.
No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.'

Like I said, there’s something secretive, something magical, and yet entirely matter of fact. It’s a statement, but it sets up a whole host of questions about what the circus is and where it’s come from, and why it appears, and why it doesn’t need any announcements – it demands and commands attention. The whole book feels like an illicit tale of whispers and secrets and magic that the reader has stumbled into and this opening sets the scene beautifully. It tells you everything and nothing at all and reminds me each time I read it, that the circus is back again.

This next one isn’t so much the first line, as the combination of the first two, but they set each other up so fantastically that it almost feels like only one line. ‘The Demon’s Lexicon’ by Sarah Rees Brennan is a fantastically witty and emotionally twisting ride of awesome, and her first sentence manages to convey the oddities of this world she’s plunging us into so effectively.

‘The pipe under the sink was leaking again. It wouldn’t have been so bad, except that Nick kept his favourite sword under the sink.’

It makes me snigger, right off I have the tone of the book, the humour shines through immediately, and I also have that juxtaposition of the normalness of a leaking sink and the absurdity of a sword being kept under it. Like I said, it sets the tone of the book, and indeed the series perfectly, and is something that Sarah keeps perfect for the opening of each book in the series. However I have a special spot in my heart for the start of a series, it’s where the magic and enchantment first set in, so I’ve only included the first book in my list. Whilst it in no way prepares me for the journey I’m about to embark on by reading this book, it sets the idea, the tone and the style off fantastically, and remains a favourite that is guaranteed to make me smile.

‘Warm Bodies’ by Isaac Marion is a rare gem of fantastic writing, absurdly brilliant content and a startling romance. I was unsure about it when I first picked it up, but the opening line sealed it for me.

“I am dead, but it’s not so bad. I have learned to live with it.”

It just made me sit up and blink and take notice. You immediately get an idea of the voice, of the tone and the slightly crazy path you’re about to go down by reading the book. It’s such a different opener to so many books that feature the un-dead, and gives a blunt opening into R and the tale he’s about to take us into. It’s just such an odd sentence when you consider it, the irony of the being dead but learning to live with it. It’s a clever and simplistic opening line that sets up Marion’s writing style.

‘It was the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.’

It gives me shivers. Like we had with ‘The Night Circus’, the opening line of ‘The Scorpio Races’ takes statements of fact in a whole new direction. It’s said with complete authority, you don’t ever question the narrator, and yet it is such a startling opening to a novel. Why? So many questions immediately crop up on reading it. It’s the sort of opener that really jolts you, it’s unexpected, it’s simple, and above all, it’s incredibly effective to persuade me as a reader to carry on.

And now, one of my all-time favourites, I don’t think a list of awesome would be complete without her on it, Deanna Raybourn’s opening line for ‘Silent in the Grave’ the first book in the Lady Julia Grey series.

‘To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body was not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor.’

It’s just so fantastic. Deanna really delights in dropping her readers right in the middle of scene – go and look at the opening of every single one of her novels, and you’ll see what I mean. If the characters aren’t dropping dead in the first line, then they’re in the middle of an argument that was going long before the reader first opened the book. It’s a fantastic way to draw the reader in and completely engross them in the action. There is no slow warm up as the reader and the author get going, they’re there right in the action, right from the start.

In fact this opening line was what persuaded me to buy the series in the first place – it’s used on the blurb to very great effect, as shown from the crazed way I bought every book of Deanna’s I could lay my hands on. It gives an idea of the narrator, of her dry wit and humour, the language indicates the time period and setting, and it’s just so absurdly comical that you can’t help but be intrigued and want to know what will happen next.

But now on to you – what makes a good first line for you? And what are some of your favourites?

1 comment:

  1. Oh I love your picks, especially The Scorpio Races, that hooked me from the first sentence as well.

    After our discussion at the RCHP brunch, I've recently bought The Night Circus!