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Tuesday, 17 November 2009

*is pondering about openings*

That's right, I'm pondering about openings. Now, before you start smirking and tittering, this isn't going to be smutty. In fact, I'm surprising myself by blogging about something that isn't insane, smutty, or random for the second day in a row. (Actually, there might be a teensy bit of smut in here somewhere, but.... well you'll see why in a bit).

The openings that are consuming my thoughts at the moment are from books. That killer first line, those magical first words that essentially need to hook readers by the navel and keep them interested. Some opening lines are probably as famous as the books from which they are taken.

 "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." - I probably don't need to tell you which book this is taken from, though for the sake of sakeness, I will inform you that it is from, of course, Austen's Pride and Prejudice.  This is probably my favorite opening line ever. It's just perfect. It sets the tone for the novel beautifully, and lets you know right away that there's going to be a wealthy man as a main character who will end up married by the end of the novel, whether he likes it or not. Just perfect.

Then we have good old "Mr and Mrs Dursely, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much." Rowling's first line from her immensely popular Harry Potter series is again a very good example, in my humble opinion. Right away you get a sense of the Dursleys' characters, plus a hint that things that might not be deemed as 'normal'' were going to happen pretty soon.

Now, with the above two examples firmly etched in my memory, I started wondering about other (book) openings too. Is there a common theme at all? Should the line be short and snappy, or a little long? Do we aim for humor, drama, or gore? Of course, it really all depends on the genre of the book. With this partly formed conclusion in my brain, I decided to have a look at a few books.

The first book I'm going to use as an example is The Girlfriend Curse by Valerie Frankel. This is from the  chick-lit genre, which I'm currently overdosing on due to my NaNo novel. The opening line reads: "Peg Silver, thirty-two, could make a man come, but she couldn't make him stay."  Personally, I thought this was a very snort-worthy opening line, and I knew immediately what the tone of the novel would be. I finished the book this morning, and wasn't disappointed. Well,  when I say I wasn't disapponted, I really meant that I was right in my assumption that the tone of the novel would be a little bit naughty, laced with several layers of smut. The story itself was nothing to write home about, but I liked the style of the author all the same. Very funny.

The next book I'm planning to read (I had a very successful trip to the library yesterday) is Schindler's Ark by Thomas Keneally. I thought the movie adaptation was very good, and I've always had an interest in the Holocaust (call me morbid if you will, but it's always fascinated me), so when I saw this book, I grabbed it quickly before somebody else could 'steal' it from me (can't tell you how many times that's happened in my local library, grrr). Opening line as follows: (Oh My Lordy, it's not a line, it's a freaking paragraph!) "In Poland's deepest autumn, a tall young man in an expensive overcoat, double-breasted dinner jacket beneath it an - in the lapel of the dinner jacket - a large ornamental gold-on-black enamel swastika, emerged from a fashionable apartment block in Straszewskiego Street on the edge of the ancient centre of Cracow, and saw his chauffeur waiting with fuming breath by the open door of an enormous and, even in this blackened world, lustrous Adler limousine."  Having never read the book before, I don't know if the style will continue to be as (long-winded) descriptive as this, but even that small paragraph (which took me ages to type, by the way) does what it is supposed to. You get a sense of gloom right away, and even poverty. You also know immediately that the main character is rich and privileged.

Lastly, I'm going to offer the opening lines of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Another famous book, and frequently listed on numerous 'Top Blah Blah Blah" lists. We have : "Hobbits are an unobtrusive but very ancient people, more numerous formerly than they are today; for they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well-ordered and well-farmed countryside was their favourite haunt."  Now, to me, that wasn't a hook at all, especially when you consider it to be the opening line to one of the most famous books in the world. I came to the Lord of the Rings fandom rather late - I missed out on The Hobbit as a child, and only decided to read The Lord of the Rings after I had watched the first two movie adaptations. If I wasn't so desperate to find out what happened in the end (a year between movies is a killer), I wouldn't have read the book. I love the story, and have since read the book three or four times, but I find it hard going. In today's world, I don't think it would have done nearly as well. Like Stephen King (another author I love for the most part), I think Tolkien's style is far too long-winded. Still, the opening 'line' did give me fair warning that the book wasn't going to be short and snappy (as if the 1,000 pages plus hadn't already told me), so it served a useful purpose.

What am I blogging about? To be honest, I'm not quite sure, I just found this subject interesting, and was merely using my blog to share my wandering thoughts. I guess what I really want to know is, what makes a good first line? Should we even be worrying about it? I mean, most people read the back of a book before they delve inside, so is the first line really as important as everybody seems to think so?

I'll continue to ponder this conundrum, but in the meantime, what do YOU think?


  1. Well I like the thoughts... LOVE that girlfriend curse opening line!

    I rather like the Lord of the Rings opener, as he does stay entangled in what extraordinary creatures hobbits are... I find the trilogy long-winded too (in spite of liking it) and couldn't get Sam to listen (always a bad sign) so i suspect you are right about today's market, but that only makes me sad. I wish today's market had a longer attention span.

    I'm still very pleased with my NaNo opener...

    "I slept with Bill Clinton."

    Yeah... it's a good line. *snort*

  2. Hahahaha, I knew you'd like the Girlfriend's Curse one...*snort* I immediately thought of you when I read it last night :)

    I agree with you on the attention span thing. LotR is an awesome book, but it would definitely slip through the net if it was published today. This is what I mean though, the opening for this book is not a super-hook, yet you can't deny that the book as a whole is one of the best out there. Opening CHAPTER, yes, very interseting, but opening LINE, not so much.

    My NaNo opener is pants. The chapter itself is quite amusing (at leasy I HOPE it is), but the opening line is pretty boring. I'll be changing it once I get to the editing stage, definitely.

    Your Bill Clinton line is awesome though. *grins*

  3. Great topic, Tara! I wish I could write good first lines, but I always seem to need a few paragraphs to easy into things. Then again, I like you wonder how much of a difference it makes. I too put more emphasis on what I read on the back of the book than the first sentence. A brilliant first line thus rarely effects whether or not I pick up the book, but I guess a good or bad opening can determine if I actually end up reading it.

    One of my favourite first lines:
    "Det var i den tid jeg gikk omkring og sultet i Kristiania, denne forunderlige by som ingen forlater før han har fåt mærker av den.."
    Opening sentence of Knut Hamsun's "Sult" [Hunger] - I don't much care for the book (though there are others of his I love), but the opening is brilliant.

    I was gonna let you take my word for it, but then I found a decent translation (though by no means a perfect one) : "All of this happened while I was walking around starving in Christiania - that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him..."

    I'm not entirely sure if Oslo [aka Christiania/Kristiania] still has that effect on people, though...

  4. Openers can be torture, so I tend to use eye-catching hooks with "look at me, I'm doing something weird and interesting" written all over them.

    Writers who can sum up the essence of their books in the opening line, well... no wonder Austen is the Darling of the Classics. :)

    Word ver: mobilit -- travelling libraries!

  5. Great post! The opening line for LoTR was not the best hook, but you have to remember that his hook was the entire book The Hobbit. It does have one of my favorite opening lines. "In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit." Very to the point and leaves you wanting to know more.