Friday, 7 September 2007

A good first sentence?

I finished the first draft of chapter one yesterday, which weighs in at 7,200 words. Today is the first time I get to sharpen my fingers and start editing, and I already hate the first sentence. So I have chopped it, and fiddled with it, and simplified it, and now I doubly hate it.

Oh Lordy… Let’s look at what has been voted a good opening line and see if I can get any clues. In Feb 2006, the American Book Review voted for their top 100 favourite first lines, and they chose ‘Call me Ishmael’ from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

I also like the following:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. 1984

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.... Tale of Two Cities

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins." Lolita

It was a pleasure to burn. Fahrenheit 451

"Mother died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know." The Stranger

They seem to be a total understatement, what seems on surface to be a minimal amount of information (call me Ishmael), yet even those three words give the reader clues – the narrator is a man, we can guess his nationality, and he gives orders.

Or it is something to make you wonder why – why are the clocks striking thirteen? No clocks strike thirteen in our world, so what world are we in here? Ze future…

Or it is a contrasting image – you don’t often get ‘pleasure’ and ‘burn’ in the same sentence. You might get ‘pleasure’ and ‘set light to’, but burn indicates pain rather than pleasure. ‘The best of times, the worst of times’ also gives us a parallel image – how can something be great and awful? So does ‘Mother died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know’ – we are ingrained as a normality to love your parents, so why does this person not know or care when their mother (very formal) died? What happened here?

Or you could start with sex - "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins" suggests lust and infatuation with a beautiful female. Who exactly is this captivating person? Well, read on, suggests that first line…

Maybe deciding on a good first line is like choosing a band name for yourself - everything sounds a bit feeble until you get your first music deal. Who'd have thought Pink Floyd or Squeeze would sound so good - I cannot see Blue Floyd or Cuddle headlining a show, can you?

2 comments:

idil o. calvero said...

nice analysis!
good luck with the chapter one.
and...yes: girl!

Jayne Ferst said...

Thanks! And cheers for your best wishes, am pleased to report chapters one and two are both on paper! It is chapter three I am now tearing my hair out over :)