The Atlantic recently asked some writers about their favourite first lines in literature. As Joe Fassler reports, “The opening lines they picked range widely in tone and execution – but in each, you can almost feel the reader’s mind beginning to listen, hear the inward swing of some inviting door.” I especially like the opening of Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White:
“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
You know right from the start that it’s all going to end in tears, don’t you?
Here are some more of my own favourites. I think it’s good to be told up front exactly what sort of book you’ve picked up:
We think it our duty to warn the public that, in spite of the title of this work and of what the editor says about it in his preface, we cannot guarantee its authenticity as a collection of letters: we have in fact, very good reason to believe it is only a novel.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses, or Letters Collected in One Section of Society and Published for the Edification of Others by Choderlos de Laclos
It’s also nice when an author explains all that we need to know about the protagonist:
The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Although this can sometimes be done just as effectively in half the words:
I planned my death carefully; unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my feeble attempts to control it.
Lady Oracle, probably Margaret Atwood’s funniest book
Or even fewer words:
I am a man you can trust, is how my customers view me.
A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler
And sometimes, an author’s first line not only tells us a lot about the protagonist, but also conveys an essential truth about literature:
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, 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?”
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
3 thoughts on “First Lines”
I love the Cold Comfort Farm quote: it tells you about Flora, her relationship with her parents and the style of the book.
I love the first two sentences of The Hobbit: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. You get a wonderful description of Bilbo’s home (and through that a sense of what Bilbo himself is like, at least superficially) as well as the narrator’s slightly unusually voice. Compare it with the first line of The Lord of the Rings: When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton. (not nearly so memorable, I had to look it up) – suddenly the narrator’s distinctive voice is gone, and you know this is going to be a very different book.
My other favourite opening is from Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett, and is unfortunately a couple of paragraphs:
The wind howled. Lightning stabbed at the earth erratically, like an inefficient assassin. Thunder rolled back and forth across the dark, rain-lashed hills.
The night was as black as the inside of a cat. It was the kind of night, you could believe, on which gods moved men as though they were pawns on the chessboard of fate. In the middle of this elemental storm a fire gleamed among the dripping furze bushes like the madness in a weasel’s eye. It illuminated three hunched figures. As the cauldron bubbled an eldritch voice shrieked: ‘When shall we three meet again?
There was a pause.
Finally another voice said, in for more ordinary tones: ‘Well, I can do next Tuesday’.
The Cold Comfort Farm quote reminds me of the opening of Northanger Abbey, which starts “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine . . . ” and then goes on for a very long paragraph explaining how un-extraordinary she is (“She never could learn or understand any thing before she was taught; and sometimes not even then, for she was often inattentive, and occasionally stupid . . .”). It makes me laugh every time.
And now you’ve made me want to read Terry Pratchett. I’ve never known where to start with him, he’s written so many books.
Terry Pratchett is amazing, so I definitely recommend reading his book. I started with Guards! Guards!, a sort of comic fantasy meets detective story, or Wyrd Sisters is also a good place to start. There are several reading order guides on the internet that show the various story arcs.