First Impressions

K.M. Weiland on Wordplay recently wrote a post on what constitutes a good opening sentence in a story. Having gone through that grueling exercise in English class of making "hooks," as well as being an author, I know how hard it is to make that first impression really count. I found her post to be very insightful, and I certainly recommend it. But what jumped out at me was the curious realization that once you have got past that killer first sentence in a story, you don't usually remember it. Think about the last good book you read: can you remember the opening line? Well, I'm bad at memorizing anyway, so I like to think I'm exempt. Maybe. But I did wonder: what are the opening sentences of the books I love most? So I thought I would figure out.

From the Fosse Way westward to Isca Dumnoniorum the road was simply a British trackway, broadened and roughly metalled, strengthened by corduroys of logs in the softest places, but otherwise unchanged from its old estate, as it wound among the hills, thrusting farther and farther into the wilderness.
The Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliff

On a blustery autumn day a galley was nosing up the wide loop of a British river that widened into the harbour of Rutupiae.
The Silver Branch, Rosemary Sutcliff

The thing happened with the appalling swiftness of a hawk swooping out of a quiet sky, on a day in late spring, when Freya was not quite five.
The Shield Ring, Rosemary Sutcliff

Hear me! we've heard of Danish heroes, ancient kings, and the glory they cut for themselves, swinging mighty swords!

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
(Okay, I can remember this one.)

Once upon a time there was a little dog, and his name was Rover.
Roverandom, J.R.R. Tolkien

My dear Wormwood, I note what you say about guiding your patient's reading and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend.
The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis

I seemed to be standing in a bus queue by the side of long, mean street.
The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis

As I left the railway station at Worchester and set out on the three-mile walk to Ransom's cottage, I reflected that no one on that platform could possibly guess the truth about the man I was going to visit.
Perelandra, C.S. Lewis

There was a man named Lessingham dwelt in an old low house in Wastdale, set in a gray old garden where yew-trees flourished that had seen Vikings in Copeland in their seedling time.
The Worm Ouroboros, E.R. Eddison

First, I shall undertake the proof and defence of the great truth that the affairs of the saints in this world are certainly conducted by the wisdom and care of special Providence.
The Mystery of Providence, John Flavel

The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it.
Black Beauty, Anna Sewell

The primroses were over.
Watership Down, Richard Adams

It is quite untrue that the Minnipins, or Small Ones, were a lost people, for they knew exactly where they were.
The Gammage Cup, Carol Kendal

In the last days of Narnia, far up to the west beyond Lantern Waste and close beside the great waterfall, there lived an Ape.
The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis

Marley was dead, to begin with.
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

They are all of them (I find) fascinating, inspiring, puzzling. You want to follow the Fosse Way into the Devon wilderness. You want to find out what on earth a hobbit is. What about Lessingham, and what's so important about an ape? And they all, to varying degrees and with varying kinds, contain a sort of magic - either jarring or enchanting or bewildering - that draws me in. And the magic is twofold: maybe I don't recall the opening sentence, but as soon as I read it again, all the enchantment of the story that I read before wells up at me out of that single introductory line. Not to put any pressure on writers, but that line is so dreadfully important. Beginnings are probably the hardest thing I have to write. Not only does the beginning have to lay the correct groundwork for the story (on a basic, pragmatic level) but the beginning has to yank the reader in head over heels and hold him under until he succumbs to the medium of my writing.

That sounds more sinister than I meant it to.

I know I'm not the only one who likes these books, and subsequently these opening sentences, so these authors must have known the trick of it. It's an enormous challenge, but I rather like it, and find myself rising to it - though it may be only the combined effects of my tea and "Moving" by The Secret Garden. I dare say they conjure a somewhat war-like attitude.

How about you? What are the opening sentences of your favourite books that draw you in to dance among the written word?

Do post!

13 ripostes:

  1. I wrote a post on my blog about this. Thanks for the great idea! Now I'll be analyzing first sentences all over the place. ;)

  2. Grazie, Eyebright! I'm simply peached that I was able to litter your day with otherwise trivial enjoyment - and I hope that the little exercise will be beneficial to both our attempts at writing.

  3. One of my favorite books is A Tale of Two Cities, which has one of the most famous openings ever.

    Other than that, hmm...

    Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies' eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade; but by the time it reached Lynde's Hollow it was a quiet, well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde's door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed, from brooks and children up, and that if she noticed anything odd or out of place she would never rest until she had ferreted out the whys and wherefores thereof.
    ~Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery

    (gracious, I never realized that was such a long one...)

    Evelyn Schauland was a very fancy woman.
    ~ Me, Myself & Bob, Phil Vischer

    (I did remember that one...)

    "Well, if there be any truth in the old adage, young Herman Brudenell will have a prosperous life; for really this is a lovely day for the middle of April -- the sky is just as sunny and the air as warm as if it were June," said Hannah Worth, looking out from the door of her hut upon a scene as beautiful as ever shone beneath the splendid radiance of an early spring morning.
    ~ Ishmael, E.D.E.N Southworth

    (yep, forgot that one...)

    Mr. Phileas Fogg lived, in 1872 at No. 7, Saville Row, Burlington Gardens, the house in which Sheridan died in 1814.
    ~ Around the World in Eight Days, Jules Verne

    (how interesting... who, when, and where.)

    Three young men stood together on a wharf one bright October day, awaiting the arrival of an ocean steamer with an impatience which found a vent in lively skirmishes with a small lad, who pervaded the premises like a will-o'-the-wisp, and afforded much amusement to the other groups assembled there.
    ~ Rose in Bloom, Louisa May Alcott

    (very straightforward, sets the scene so nicely...)

    How dreadfully old I am getting! Sixteen!
    ~ Stepping Heavenward, Elizabeth Prentiss

    (okay, so that's technically two sentences... but the second one is a fragment, so...)

    Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
    ~ David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

    (ooh! how fascinating...)

    At the edge of the Dark Forest, JaRed the field mouse waited for the face of death to reveal itself.
    ~ Runt the Brave, Daniel Schwabauer

    (so perfect...)

    Probably a longer comment than you wanted, but this was such a fascinating experiment! Thank you! :)

  4. Such a long comment wasn't anticipated, but it doesn't follow that it should be unwelcome.

    It has been years since my mother read Anne of Green Gables to me. I did recall that it began with the ineffable Mrs. Lynde, but I didn't remember that the opening sentence was so very long. It's very hard to pull off such a long sentence without losing the attention of the reader, and I take the liberty of saying L.M. Montgomery did an excellent job. Truth be told (and truth be funny) Eyebright just posted the opening sentence of Ishmael on her blog, so though I haven't read the book myself, I have just been acquainted with it. David Copperfield I have not read, though the opening line is spoken quite beautifully, and quite movingly, in the film production, so I have heard that before too. Though I never did finish the book, "How dreadfully old I am getting! Sixteen!" did stick with me from Elizabeth Prentiss's book. Around the World in Eighty Days is a book I have read but, I fear, has faded into obscurity in my memory. Runt the Brave and Me, Myself, and Bob are books I have not heard of before, and I fear I can boast of only Little Women among the Alcott books I have read.

    Refreshingly diverse and very intellectual, Grace. Thank you so much for the comment.

  5. You've got good taste - you've listed three of my very favourite Lewises, and I lovelove The Hobbit and Watership Down and The Gammage Cup. :) I might need to do my own post on this, but in the meantime I'll leave you with my favourite opening sentence of all time:

    "There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ill├║vatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made."
    ~ The Silmarillion, JRR Tolkien

  6. With the title, I expected to find the opening lines from Pride & Prejudice among these. Nevertheless, 'tis an impressive array, to be sure. I could post a few of my own, but I wouldn't know where to start. (Ba-dum-tish!)

    Flippancy aside, I must say I enjoyed this thoroughly. And also that 'The Hobbit' has to rank among the best last-liners as well.

  7. My dear ZNZ (how does one pronounce that?), you might be the first to insinuate that I have good taste in literature, and while I might contest that I will nevertheless take it as a compliment and an encouragement. I feel as if I do not read nearly as much nor as well as I ought, or could. As for The Silmarillion, I can only say bravo. ^.^

    I almost picked up Pride and Prejudice, Anna, but I held back because those opening lines are so well known. Perhaps that is the rubbish of an argument, but it was all I could come up with on the spur of the moment as I staggered from my bookcase with all my books weighing my arms to twice their usual length. (I look quite hideous now, I hope you know.) But I do want to see you post such a piece; I am always interested in whatever your mind spins out. I don't know if this does either of us any credit, but it's a fact of life, and here we are in the same proverbial boat, and if neither of us have an oar, well, at least we'll drown together.

    Good George, I have no idea what I'm going on about.

  8. Who's George?

    Anyway, I think, what with the best of times and the truths universally acknowledged, we've hit two of the three most famous, lacking only, "Call me Ishmael." Here's a few more from my own shelf:

    "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Anna Karenina - Tolstoy

    "The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette." The Princess Bride, S. Morgenstern

    "Though it is hard to be a king, it is harder yet to become one." Freddy and Fredericka, Mark Helprin

    "Dear friend now in the dusty clockless hours of the town when the streets lie black and steaming in the wake of the watertrucks and now when the drunk and the homeless have washed up in the lee of walls in alleys or abandoned lots and cats go forth highshouldered and lean in the grim perimeters about, now in these sootblacked brick or cobbled corriders where lightwire shadows make a gothic harp of cellar doors no soul shall walk save you." Suttree, Cormac McCarthy

  9. To pronounce my name, you just say each letter individually. Also, don't say bravo about the Silm - I really did love every minute of it, though I appear to be all alone in that regard.

  10. I would like to take this moment to say that I enjoyed The Silmarillion. I actually liked it more than The Lord of the Rings itself. I need to reread it, though.

  11. I didn't like it more than The Lord of the Rings. But I did heartily enjoy all of it.

  12. Oh hurrah! You included Black Beauty (though I didn't recall the first line, only the first place. I'm currently thinking of In the Hall of the Dragon King's (very good) first line.) I remember having Black Beauty read to me before I was schoolage, back when I was very little.And the gammage cup and The great Divorce, plus sutcliff!) Sadly, it's too late to go looking for all my favorite lines, so I'll just post one qoute from a book that I have enjoyed over the years.

    "On the day I was born, my grandmother wrapped me in a blanket made from the wool of her sheep." All The Places To Love Patricia Maclachlan

  13. So I finally got around to it and made a qoute post( mentioning Shadow things.) We were discussing today how we could find ways to get people in the circles we are part of interest in the soldier's Cross and the Shadow Things.