Magic of the First Line

In this post I want to take a look at first lines of novels. Some are famous, some not. (see end of post to find book/author)


‘Maman died today.’ What does this set us up for? The novel is going to be about Mama and how it affects the writer. We know the narrative will be in the first person. It is immediately involving, using emotional concepts such as grief, loss, mothers and the immediacy found in the word ‘today.’


‘Sylvia Finch wonders how much longer she can do this.’ This is a great hook. Who the hell is Sylvia Finch? What is she doing? Why can’t she do it any longer? The first sentence is also in the first tense as it is the in the example above it, a sure way to involve a reader.


‘War is

A grave affair of state;

It is a place

Of life and death,

A road to survival and extinction,

A matter

To be pondered carefully.’

Here is one sentence, in poetic form, that lets us know that we are speaking about very serious things. The tone is philosophical, but also grounded in realism. If war, or affairs of life and death, survival and extinction, are things you are interested in and want to see discussed, and there are many of us, this sentence would pull you in.


‘It was seven minutes after midnight.’ Again a great introduction to a novel, much better than, say, ‘it was around midnight.’ The idea is immediately apparent that accuracy is very important. Why? Was a crime committed? Did someone escape from somewhere? If we read on we find out soon enough why, but we need to read on, which is the whole point.


‘It’s hot as hell in Martino, but the papers on the porch are icy with news.’ Okay this is not a simple statement; there are mysteries in it. Straightaway we have Martino (where is that?), the heat, and the papers ‘icy with news.’ It must be some news, right? Lucky reader, read on.


‘They said I must die.’ Right. Fairly dramatic. Not some other random person who has to die but ‘I’. A great start. What does it set up? Direct involvement for one. Suspense, because obviously ‘I’ is still alive and kicking. What do we want to know? Well, who, when, where and how for a start.


‘When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.’ Again how? How did Jem get his arm broken? Why? It’s not really a dramatic start to a tale, but it does have an easy, familiar, conversation tone that draws the reader in. You feel comfortable with this narrator and that’s always a good thing.


References:

Maman died today.

-The Stranger by Albert Camus


Sylvia Finch wonders how much longer she can do this.

-The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman


Master Sun said:

War is

A grave affair of state;

It is a place

Of life and death,

Aa road to survival and extinction,

A matter

To be pondered carefully.

-The Art of War by Sun-Tzu


It was seven minutes after midnight.

-The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon


It’s hot as hell in Martino, but the papers on the porch are icy with the news.

-Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre


They said I must die.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent


When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.

-To Kill a Mockingbird by