13 November 2012

First Lines and Titles

Has anyone read the first page of a book and known immediately that you were going to love it?  Or perhaps the reverse is true, that you read the first page and put it down because it’s not what you wanted it to be.

So many authors agonize over that all-important first sentence.  It has to grip the reader and hold on tight, commanding them to read more while giving them enough information to pull them in voluntarily.  

I thought it might be fun to list first lines from a few books.

“She scowled at her glass of orange juice.”  The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley

“If it had not rained on a certain May morning Valancy Stirling’s whole life would have been entirely different.”  The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”  To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

“I didn’t know how long I had been in the king’s prison.”  The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way -- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”  A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens   (Perhaps one of the longest first sentences in all of literature, and certainly a run on sentence.  But oh, oh, so stirring.)

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

“She was born Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree, and she did not open her eyes for three days.”  The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale 

If you’re like me, there are a few standouts among the above list.  A few that feel to my brain the way brownies taste on the tongue.  That jumbo-sized sentence by Dickens honestly does something to me.  It’s magic.  And I think Jane Austen wrote the most recognizable first sentence.  Is there any English speaking person that hasn’t heard it?

There seems to be two camps when it comes to first lines.  At least, in the tiny sampling I’ve done here.  Some authors seem to want to punch out that first line, a quick jab to the jaw, just to get your attention and push you on to reading the second sentence before you realize you’re doing it.

The other camp seems to relish those first words, lingering on tongue and mind like a delectable cheese, wanting you to find as much fulfillment in those opening lines as they found in writing them.

I find I much admire the second camp and wish I could be one of their number.  They are the kind who take great care in the selecting and feeding of words for their stories.  They are the kind that smack my gob and keep me coming back for more smacks.  (I had a sudden vision of “Kung Fu Panda” saying “Wooaaaaah!”  Like his mind had just been blown.  That’s me.)

I understand the first camp quite a bit because it seems they are anxious to get into the meat, to the middle of the story, to take you on a journey.  That’s how I feel as I start reading.  I’m ready for adventure, for romance, for angst, for whatever is in store for me, and I’m ready now.  So, jump in.

I don’t know if anyone else is interested in this, or if it’s just me.  (Hello?  Hello?  I’m all alone?  Oh.  It’s so cold.  So.  Cold.)

1 comment:

Becca said...

It makes me think of something my Introduction to Seminary Teaching professor said: You have one line to make your point. Honestly, if you can't delight me or intrigue me in the first sentence (even if it needs to run on a bit, Dickens) then you've probably lost a lot of your power, don't you think?