Saturday, April 8, 2023

first lines in fiction


In the beginning …
In the beginning … Photograph: Sean Gladwell/Getty Images

Top 10 first lines in fiction

The first words of a story have to do a lot of work in snaring the reader. Novelist Liz Nugent considers some of her favourites

Agood first line is not always necessary because who stops reading after one sentence? But it can be extremely useful in building expectations for the style and characterisation that will follow. While book jackets can indicate a broad genre, that line can define the subgenre.

The opening may establish the tone, character, location, era or season but it can also pull a reader into the realm of the story that follows, and often into the head of the protagonist or into an alternate reality. When we open a book, we are ready to embark on a journey. The starter pistol should propel us forward. In my experience, a great opening will also raise questions that needs to be answered. Who or why or how or indeed, wtf?

In my own work, I like to set the opening line in the aftermath of a major event. I write first-person narratives and the reaction of the protagonist to this event should give the reader a good indication of the type of character we are dealing with. To demonstrate, here are some of my favourite openings by other writers.

1. Breakfast Wine from There Are Little Kingdoms by Kevin Barry

They say it takes just three alcoholics to keep a small bar running in a country town and while myself and the cousin, Thomas, were doing what we could, we were a man shy, and these were difficult days for Mr Kelliher, licensee of the North Star, Pearse Street.

A whole world and three distinct characters have been created in this one sentence. Our narrator is aware of the fact that he is an alcoholic, but does Thomas know that the narrator is? Does he know that he is? Where is poor Mr Kelliher going to find a third alcoholic to keep his doors open? A small bar in a country town depending on alcoholics sounds like a sad and desperate place. What a fantastic setup for a story. I promise you that what follows does not disappoint.

2. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

No live organism can continue for long to exist under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.

Immediately, we are drawn into a universe of uncertainty with this immaculate line. Here, for all living creatures, reality can overwhelm and therefore the suggestion of a dream world is a viable alternative. But as we all know, dreams can turn to nightmares and even the hint of what an insect might dream about sends shivers down the spine. Live organisms include humans. What horrors or fantasies await them? They cannot “continue for long” to cope with reality. So there is the question that needs an answer. Will lives be cut short or will the inhabitants be forced into nightmarish delusion?

3. The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe

When I was a young lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs Nugent.

This character presents himself as “mad” from the get-go. He has no idea how many decades he has lived. What on earth could he have done to a presumably older married lady that would incur the wrath of the whole town? He is open about the fact that he “done” it. While his memory may be faulty, we believe him. He also wins our sympathy because he was a boy when this event occurred. Will we still be on his side when we find out what he did? This is the first book I read in one sitting, desperate to get to the shocking answer.

4. Perfume by Patrick Süskind

In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages.

France in this era, as represented in our art galleries, gave us female nudes, silk-clothed nobility in powdered wigs and pastoral images of the peasantry. The most notable books of the century were Les Liaisons Dangereuses, depicting a time of decadence when France loosened her stays for a moment and Candide, bitterly satirical, blasphemous and seditious. And into this time comes a man, at once gifted and abominable. Here we have two questions: What is his great gift and more thrillingly, what is his abomination? The answers do involve female nudes but not in a way you could possibly predict.

Toni Morrison in the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.
Toni Morrison in the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. Photograph: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Magnolia Pictures

5. Paradise by Toni Morrison

They shoot the white girl first.

Probably the most startling of all, this opening belies the title, because wherever this is set, it’s far from paradise. Someone is shooting girls, and is prioritising their executions by their colour. How many girls will follow? Who is doing the shooting, and why? Is this the norm for the society the reader is about to inhabit or is this the a terrible one-off? In six words, Toni Morrison has grabbed us by the throat.

6. Highfire by Eoin Colfer

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Vern did not trust humans was the long and short of it.

Best known for his Artemis Fowl series for children, Highfire was Colfer’s first adult fantasy novel, a genre I had avoided because of my own narrow mind. But this line hooked me straight away. Vern, as it turns out, is a dragon, the last of his kind and a confirmed anthropophobic. The opening line shows that we have failed him. This fact is unequivocal. Why would he ever have anything to do with us in the future? I had to read on to find out in this wildly entertaining take on being antisocial.

7. Razorblade Tears by SA Cosby

Ike tried to remember a time when men with badges coming to his door early in the morning brought anything other than heartache and misery, but try as he might nothing came to mind.

Clearly, Cosby’s protagonist Ike has endured a lot of suffering and has also been on the wrong side of the law. With this line, Ike wins our sympathy. Men with badges have been turning up since childhood. Such a clever way to tell us that Ike is flawed, and also weary. And now we want to know the cause of the misery that is about to be revealed.

8. My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

The old house hunkers on its hill, all peeling white paint, bay windows, and spindled wooden railings overgrown with climbing roses and poison oak.

Decay, neglect, toxicity and menace. All of these qualities delivered in the opening line tell us that this is not going to be a cheerful tale. And indeed it is a harrowing story, but hidden in that line are roses, fragile and climbing, perhaps looking to escape but trapped by poison? What kind of people live in such a house?

9. I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb

On the afternoon of October 12, 1990, my twin brother Thomas entered the Three Rivers, Connecticut Public Library, retreated to one of the rear study carrels, and prayed to God the sacrifice he was about to commit would be deemed acceptable.

The first part of this sentence points to an average man on an average day. The second part indicates something huge is about to happen. Thomas is no average character. Who chooses a library to make a sacrifice? Reading it today, one might suspect Thomas to be a suicide bomber, but in 1998, when I first read it, that didn’t enter my mind. Even if it had, I would have been wrong. What sacrifice is about to be made? Why the library? What’s going on between Thomas and his twin brother?

10. Waiting by Ha Jin

Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.

This line gives us a peek into a society where divorce is clearly not as straightforward as it is in western cultures. The reader is forced to wonder why Lin has to return to this village, where he’s returning from, why he wants to divorce his wife and how long this has been going on. We get the sense that our protagonist is tired of the annual pilgrimage and yet, he is relentless. He needs this release. We know immediately that the book is well named.

 Strange Sally Diamond by Liz Nugent is published by Penguin. To help the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from Delivery charges may apply.