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First Lines

In the first month of a new year I thought it was fitting to write a post about first lines. First lines are important because they create an immediate impression in the mind of the reader. If they’re memorable, they can pass into common cultural reference. Think for example of the famous opening lines of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which apparently are the most widely-known, according to this Guardian article [1]. But ‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’, from LP Hartley’s The Go Between, and ‘happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’, from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, are also common cultural currency, quoted again and again and sometimes in contexts far removed from their original source!

Here are some of my favourite first lines from famous books:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. (JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone)

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. (JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit)

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four)

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the riverbank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book’, thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?'(Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland)

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug. (Louisa May Alcott, Little Women)

All children, except one, grow up. (JM Barrie, Peter Pan and Wendy)

I could go on 😊 of course but I won’t! What I want to focus on is why those lines work so well.

Firstly, no matter what time period they come from, they immediately put the reader straight into the world of the book. The world can be familiar in feel, like Little Women; or disorienting, like 1984 or magical, like The Hobbit; or surprising, like Peter Pan; but in each, straight away you get a pleasurable, intriguing hint of what might be coming. You know straight away that Mr and Mrs Dursley are about to get the shock of their lives; that things have not gone well for the narrator of Rebecca; that there’s a ghost lurking in A Christmas Carol, and that Alice is definitely not going to stay bored. You just don’t know the how and why–and you can’t wait to find out! In those sharply evocative, intriguing opening lines, the authors have got our attention as readers right away, no matter what age we are. Adults are no different to children when it comes to that. The other thing to note is that these first lines are often short (except for the Alice quote!) and always direct, with a great simplicity and clarity. They feel effortless, though in fact the author may well have slaved over them. They have a certain musicality, too, in my opinion: they strike the reader’s eye, yes, but also her ear. You can imagine the words sounding in your head, bright and clear and making you sit up and take notice. In short, they beautifully display the storyteller’s gift in microcosm.

And those, I think, are the important things to remember in our own creation of first lines for our work. Whether they come to us quickly or slowly, whether we are writing for adults or children, and whatever genre we are writing in, those qualities of instant immersion, simplicity, clarity and intrigue are absolutely crucial to the success of first lines, and thus our work’s first impression on the reader. Of course we then have to follow a killer first line up with a fantastic story full stop; but it’s my theory, based on my own experience, that the creation of a great first line is often the key to unlocking the creative flow.

Over to you: what’s your view on first lines, both as readers and writers? What are your own favourites, and why?

About Sophie Masson [2]

Sophie Masson [3] has published more than fifty novels internationally since 1990, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, raised mostly in Australia, she has a master’s degree in French and English literature. Sophie's new e-book on authorship, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers, is available at Australian Society of Authors [4].