Wed
Aug 12 2009 3:17pm

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
Ryan Gustafson
1. robotrevolution
The opening line from 1984 is my favorite ever. I love it, especially here in North Dakota, when you get really bright, cold days in April (and snowstorms in May!).
Jason Denzel
2. JasonDenzel
Hi David. Congrats on the upcoming publication of your book. :)

For some reason, I always enjoyed the first line to Tad Williams' OTHERLAND series: "It started in mud as many things do."

There's lots of other good ones, of course, but that one always amused me.
DemetriosX
3. DemetriosX
I've always found the opening line of Silverlock to be one of the best:

"If I had cared to live, I would have died."

It's a great hook.
Tim Nolan
4. Dr_Fidelius
First lines in speculative fiction have more riding on them than most. When I open a book by a new author I always think of the children jumping into the world-pools in The Magician's Nephew - you never know what kind of world you're going to end up in.

As openings go I think Titus Groan is still the one to beat.
"Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping arch, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.
Luis Milan
5. LuisMilan
“I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for: If they think you’re crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude.”

From William Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic". Great story, incredible writer, shitty movie.
David Whitley
6. DavidWhitley
Thanks for the comments everyone! Those sound like brilliant first lines... the kind that make you want to drop everything and go and read the rest of the book.

Ah, I wish we had more bright cold April mornings in Britain. They're cold, certainly, but bright would imply a lack of rain... pretty rare. I sometimes wonder whether George Orwell intended the clear weather to be even more unsettling than the clock!

I know exactly what you mean, Dr Fidelius, an entire fictional world is born on every first page. Though few do it quite as thoroughly as "Titus Groan"! Those sentences are as twisty, gothic and grandiose as Gormenghast itself - with every archaic word echoing with age, and subordinate clauses propping the descriptive passages up like flying buttresses...

And thank you for your kind words, jwdenzel! This feels like a really welcoming place!
DemetriosX
7. moonrat
David!!! Of course you won't recognize me in this garb, but you knew me at CCC. You're published!! You're an author, and I'm an editor now! (I have a publishing blog here: editorialass.blogspot.com)

Congratulations :) Actually, the connections are unfathomable. I'll get into that later--but great to see you doing so well!
Dru O'Higgins
8. bellman
"In five years, the penis will be obsolete," said the salesman.

From John Varley's Steel Beach. Always thought that was a hilarious choice for a first line.
David Whitley
9. DavidWhitley
Good heavens Moonrat! That is quite a coincidence... and thank you for your exclamation marks of congratulation!

Ah, but I can't talk here, for fear of compromising your secret identity...

And Bellman... well, all I want to know is what year was that written in? I want to know how much time I've got left...

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