Once upon a time…

I’ve been wondering how to begin this series of posts. It’s unnerving, arriving in a huge and fascinating community like this, with my first novel still not quite out.

In a way, it’s rather like finding a first line for a novel. Browse through any book on the craft of writing, and it will fall over itself to tell you that the first line is vital—that it has to seize the reader in an iron grasp, and not let them go until they are at the end, or at least until they have bought the book.

All true, of course. But first lines are more than that. They are a reader’s first contact with a new world. Their first experience of a writer’s voice, or a new character. Like it or not, they colour everything that comes afterwards.

Take the first line of The Day of the Triffids:

When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.

Whatever the back of the book may have said, this isn’t just about giant plants. This first line instantly puts us in a mood of unease, leading us into the growing tension of the opening chapters. But more importantly, Wyndham captures the unsettling tone of the book with perfect clarity. The awful silence of a blinded country is made into an almost mundane conundrum—it doesn’t sound like an apocalypse, it sounds like Sunday. When the book turns out to be more about how ordinary people muddle along in an unnatural crisis, rather than the monstrous triffids, we are not surprised.

Sometimes a first line can set out the work’s agenda blatantly, and sometimes more subtly. For sheer bravado, you don’t have to look much further than the first sentence of Milton’s Paradise Lost:

Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe
With loss of Eden, till one greater man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing heavenly muse,

Phew. Six lines in before Milton gets to a main verb. It takes another ten lines before the sentence actually ends. By that point, we’ve not only been told that this poem is going to be epic in scale—we’ve felt it. It’s cadences soar with power, and it sets out its subject with utter confidence.

Contrast that, then, with a first line that seems almost inconsequential:

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway is not exactly a plot-driven novel. But there are still many more exciting, and important, things she could have started with. Clarissa Dalloway is about to meet an old lover, remember her passionate youth, and nearly cross paths with a shell-shocked and suicidal young man. Why open with something so insignificant?

And yet… at the heart of Mrs Dalloway is the fear of being unimportant. Clarissa Dalloway worries that she has become trivial, that she is little more than a shell for her memories and recollections. By giving these flowers centre-stage right at the start, along with Mrs Dalloway’s half-hearted little stab at independence, we know that the coming story, however far it may range, will be about the careful workings of the mind.

And then there are the tricksters—the opening words that try to wrong-foot you:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

From this opening sentence, Nineteen Eighty-Four could have been a more fantastical novel. The “witching hour” symbolism—unlucky numbers, ominously ringing on a cold afternoon—could easily have begun a ghost story. But the crushing power of the book is that for all of its horror, its evils are all human and banal. The thirteenth hour is nothing more alarming than the 24 hour clock. But because that note of evil and superstition has already been sounded, we are prepared to find worse horrors in an already bleak world. We are on edge before the end of the first sentence.

And as for me? The opening words of my first novel, The Midnight Charter, came on the third or fourth draft. They don’t give away too much of the plot, and they’re certainly not telling the whole truth, but I like them:

Being dead was colder than Mark had expected.


David Whitley is British, and a recent graduate of the University of Oxford. His first novel is The Midnight Charter, a fantasy adventure for young adults which, to his complete astonishment, has sold on five continents in thirteen languages. The first of a trilogy, it will be published in the US by Roaring Brook in September.

9 Comments

Subscribe to this thread