I think a story can, to an extent, live or die by it’s opening line. Sure, it’s not everything but first impressions are always important.
When I finish a book I sometimes like to flick back to the first page and read that opening sentence again. I like to think about what the author tried to present there and how it works with the story that follows.
Just as there are many, many stories in the world, so there are also a tonne of different ways to go about starting one. Today I have pulled out some random books from my shelves and reflected on how each author chose to begin their story.
“Joost had two problems: the moon and his moustache.” –Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
What a tone setter. It’s light and funny with a nice bit of alliteration. This one is misleading because it sets you up with a giggle when actually this first chapter ends in a rather dark place, to say the least.
Joost is also not a main character in Six of Crows. I like that Bardugo chose to pluck someone who would otherwise be a ‘mere’ background character and took the time to use her opening chapter to swiftly both build and destroy him. Because of that storytelling choice this opening sentence does a lot of work in serving up this character to us as efficiently as possible. We don’t have a lot of time to spend with him and to have things happen to him and have us care about it so the words themselves have to work double time to be effective.
This line sets Joost up as a preening, slightly innocent (I mean: only two problems in life…?)and romantically minded person through the lingering on his moustache, the poetic device of the alliteration and the mention of the moon-a typical feature of romantic musings .
It’s a nice narrative choice and great for keeping the reader on their toes.
“The Home Office telegraphy department always smelled of tea.” The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
I don’t think the opening line of this fantastical novel set in Victorian London could get any more British if it tried. We have the weight of government implied with the ‘Home Office’ location quickly softened by the prevailing scent of tea. In a way this is a nice summation of the novel, which features a twisting plot tempered by sweetly domestic character-building scenes.
“Maia woke with his cousin’s cold fingers digging into his shoulders.” –The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
If you have not yet had the pleasure of reading The Goblin Emperor, I strongly suggest that you give it a go. it is one of my absolute favourite novels and as such I have reread this sentence countless times.
Maia is about to have his life turned upside down over the course of this chapter. Up until now he has been the exiled and neglected son of an Emperor. He’s not the eldest child and has in no way been brought up to rule. And yet the crash of an airship changes everything. The first chapter shows Maia getting the news that his father and older brothers are dead and he is now heir to the Empire.
This opening line plays with the idea of the dichotomies between being awake and asleep, today and yesterday, cold and warm. Maia is harshly and coldly torn from his sleep and his old reality into a new one by the rough hands of his cousin, a man who we later learn has been both physically and mentally abusing Maia. The bad relationship is evident already from this sentence so it comes as no surprise when Maia opens up about it later. There’s nothing kind or familiar in the way Maia is treated. The way Addison specifies that Setheris (the cousin) digs his fingers into Maia’s shoulder always makes my teeth clench.
I always associate this book with hopefulness but before we can reach that conclusion, we must begin with this stark awakening to a new world order that does not at first appear to be in Maia’s favour. And in many ways, it truly is not.
Maia has to go through a lot to take control of his story. He has a long journey to travel from this first sentence where he is being directly controlled by others, pulled awake by force, to an Emperor who can exercise true agency in his own right.
Do you have a favourite opening line? Let me know in the comments below. I might break down a few more in a future post.