Saturday, February 04, 2006

Great First Lines

Saras said that she'd once been told on a creative writing course that the first line of a story should make you spill your coffee. Whilst not actually wanting to get my books any more messed up with food and drink than they already are, I have to agree that a whole lot of promise has to be coiled up in those first few words.

A sort of meme thing about best first lines seems to be being passed around among litbloggers : Edward Champion (whom I found via this post on the subject by Bud Parr) seems to be the guy who kicked off the challenge in his search for:
... an opening sentence so utterly irresistible, something that is so unquestionably curious and so absolutely tantalizing that you, as a reader, simply must read the whole thing!
And I, of course, am only too happy to pass the challenge on to you!

I think my favourite has to be the opening of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock and remember the pleasure with which I settled down to read it:
Hale knew they meant to murder him before he had been in Brighton three hours.
The opening line of marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude is another classic:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

And then there's the audacity of Burgess in Earthly Powers :
It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.
I love too the way that Katherine Mansfield begins some of her short stories as if she's picking up the threads of an earlier conversation, so that you feel invited into a confidence, which is a pretty neat trick, if you think about it. The Garden Party for example begins:
And after all the weather was ideal.

Etgar Keret's short short stories have irresistible first lines and this I think is a big part of the joy of reading him:
That night when the daemon came to take away his talent, he didn't whine or argue or put up a fuss. (From One Last story and That's It)

In Hell, they put me in a cauldron of boiling water. (From Katzenstein)

In June, after the plague of frogs, people began leaving the valley in droves. (From Plague of the Firstborn)

Dad wouldn't buy me a Bart Simpson doll. (Breaking the Pig)
If you want to waste some serious time here's a fun literary quiz about first lines, try this. (I scored 44 out of 66 which I don't think is too bad since most of it was guesswork!) And if you want even more, the American Book Review lists 100 Best First Lines from Novels here.

Bud Parr points out, this pondering on favourite first lines is more than a little dangerous:
I find myself thinking about the great books I've read, thumbing through them, trying to resist dropping everything to re-read them. Should I pop open a bottle of wine?
In my case I'm suddenly overcome with a terrible sadness for books once owned but lost along the way. Gaps in my collection that need to be filled.


cheng sim said...

The only first lines i remember so vividly are:

"it was the worst of times. it was the best of times..."- Tales of Two Cities.

i wish to link you because im a bookaholic myself!

bibliobibuli said...

glad to hear you're a bookaholic too!
yes, a tale of two cities has a great opening ... love the opening to dicken's 'bleak house' too ... the bit about the megalosaurus paddling up holborn hill in the fog ...

Kak Teh said...

sharon, can't resist this. I will go for Patricia Cornwell ( am a hopeless Cornwell addict)Her first lines tend to set the mood - just grip my attention.
From Black Notice: The late morning blazed with blue skies and colors of fall, but none of it was for me.
From Cause of Death: On the last morning of Virginia's bloodiest year since the Civil War. I built a fire and sat facing a window of darkness where at sunrise I knew I would find the sea.
From Cruel and Unusual: The Monday I carried Ronnie Joe Waddell's meditation in my pocket book, I never saw the sun.

Well, just a few! hehe

Anonymous said...

I'm an absolute sucker for first-line lists. Here are my top five:
1. "'Where's Papa going with that ax?' said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast." E.B. White, Charlotte's Web.
2. "People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day." Charles Portis, True Grit.
3. "The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning." Ian Fleming, Casino Royale.
4. "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing." Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It.
5. "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca.

Kak Teh said...

aaah! why didn't i think of Rebecca!! Simply love that classic! Oh well, mustn't hog yr blog!

Greenbottle said...

what a coincidence...i was just commenting about first lines last night....and whaddaya know? one of the best first lines i ever read actually came from a BLOG POSTING by one quite familiar to sharon... the very naughty amir in his 'malay male' blog...

this is his first line for 28 Jan 06 posting...

"two days ago, i retired from sex".

My favorite all time first few lines from a novel came from Elias Canetti's Auto da Fe...

'What are you doing here, my little man?'
'Then why are you standing here?'
'Just because'
'Can you read?'
'Oh, yes.'
'How old are you?'
'Nine and a bit.'
'Which would you prefer, a piece of chocolate or a book?'
'A book.'

Weedflower said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
bibliobibuli said...

hmmm ... i recognise the accent weedflower ... as erudite and incisive as ever i see ...

bibliobibuli said...

kak teh - don't worry your comments are always welcome! your first sentences make me realise that i must read patricia cornwall soon ...

and yes, i'd forgotten about the first line of rebecca too ... i know the house ...

anon - very nice list especially the line from 'charlotte's web' ...

greenbottle - agree with you entirely about amir's first line ... but don't let him know or it will go to his already very swollen head ...

=] said...

Hi. I read nothing but Patricia Cornwell at one's been awhile since I've read her books..
Anyway, this line from Dorian Gray drew me into the world of Wilde..
"the studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn."
Not exactly my favourite first line, but it was one of those lines that made me like the author immediately. I'm such a sucker for such descriptive sentences..

Walker said...

Everybody stole my lines! I was actually ready with the Marquez one before I reached it in your entry!

And The Tale of Two Cities worst of times/best of times was my backup!

Damn! ;)

starlight said...

On the day Anuradha Patwardhan was leaving Udaipur to marry a man she had not even met in the twenty-one years of her existance, her mother clutched her lovely hand through the window of the black Victoria and whispered: ' in this life, my darling, there is no mercy.' - The Last Song of Dusk. Siddharth Dhanwant Shanghvi

All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion. - Anna Karenin, Leo Tolstoy

amir said...

"Benjamin Lasseter had come to the unavoidable conclusion that the author of 'A Walking Tour of the British Coastline' - the book he was carrying in his backpack - had never been on a walking tour of any kind.

And would not have recognised the British coastline if it were to dance through his bedroom at the head of a marching band singing, 'I'm the British coastline' in a loud and cheerful voice, while accompanying itself on the kazoo."

- Shoggoth's Old Peculiar, a short story by Neil Gaiman.

Hope I got everything right. Typing from memory.

amir said...

"The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door..."

- from a science fiction and fantasy anthology. Forgot the title and author.

In the notes section, the writer said that the opening line was a short horror story in itself.

"The horror," he wrote, "is in the ellipses."


The story ends with the same line.

"The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door..."

Although by that time, it had turned into a slightly different genre than pure science fiction, I might add.

Wonderful story.

As good as the one about the man who would turn into an elephant on every public holiday.

bibliobibuli said...

square smiley - that's a very powerful opening ... i love descriptive passages too if they're well written ... often reread them several times when they give me pleasure (no wonder i'm such a slow reader)

walker - sorry lah!

starlight - must read the first book ... and oh yes, the opening to anna karenin is one i've memorised ...

amir - hope you didn't see what greenbottle wrote about you a few comments back! - the gainman opening made me laugh ... you have this by heart??? i actually bought my first gaiman novel 'cos you keep banging on about him ... ;-D

"The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door..." ... i googled this and found the two lines acknowledged as the shortest short story ever ...

"the one about the man who would turn into an elephant on every public holiday." - this sounds like a story you might write

FBT said...

"If you really want to hear about it, you probably want to know what my lousy childhood was like and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like it. In the first place, my parents would have about two haemorrhages a piece if I said anything pretty personal about them. They're nice and all, my parents, I'm not saying that, but they're also touchy as hell." Catcher in the Rye.

FBT said...

49 out of 66 on the quiz. I had to guess most of the American ones - who are all these people?

C. Thripwibble said...

For some reason, I can never forget Ayn Rand's opening lines to "We the Living":
"Petrograd smelled of carbolic acid."
Not a lovely image, nor smell, but it does linger ....

kingbonk said...

True! Nervous, very very dreadfully nervous I have been, and am. But why would you say that I am mad?

Poe, Telltale Heart.

bibliobibuli said...

if you came to this site nov 1st 2006 by googling "The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door..." could you please take a moment to drop by here 'cos i'm being driven mad with curiosity!!!