Face of an Egyptian Mummy in the Louvre, Paris
This post originally appeared on the Writers’ Centre Norwich website.
Everybody knows the opening line of a novel has to be a total killer. Authors draft and redraft the first line, desperate to get the perfect reaction from reader and publisher alike. But what exactly is it that makes a great first line?
I had the opportunity to listen to Lee Brackstone, Publishing Director for fiction at Faber and Faber, talk on this topic last night. Brackstone argues that the first line of a novel should not only draw the reader in, but it should also be able to encapsulate the novel in a single sentence. That’s a lot of pressure for just one sentence. Brackstone insisted the best opening sentences inform, anchor and let the reader know just what sort of story they’re about to enter in to. What an exiting and thrilling thought – after hearing him talk I wanted to rush to my bookshelves and see just how many novels achieve the perfect opening line!
Brackstone went on to argue that the art of the sentence is the first thing a writer should focus on. The idea of ‘encapsulating’ the book inside a sentence is a great way to think about how sentences and paragraphs enact the story they’re telling. The style of the work can certainly inform and engage the reader just as much as narrative or character. There is a real art to making a sentence fizz and shimmy into life; there is certainly a difference between simply telling a good story, and telling a good story really well.
I thought it would be interesting to consider Evie Wyld’s debut novel – After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, which is coming up next on our cracking Summer Reads programme. Wyld, I think, achieves a strong opening line. It draws you straight into a rich world, while hinting at the story to come.
The opening line is: ‘The sun turned the narrow dirt track to dust.’
(Have a read of the opening pages of Wyld’s novel.)
Does the line work for you? Deceptively simple, perhaps. I’m a fan of the line’s directness and punchiness. The images evoked are sun/heat, dust, dirt, air, narrowness/being closed in. These images all give the reader a feel of place and mood straight away. The line also has a sense of ‘the Fire’ from the title of the novel.
Moreover, I love that a transformation is enacted in the line – the turning of dirt to dust seems to hint at the transformations that will go on to occur to the main characters in the novel, and the impact of those transformations. The viciousness of the sun enacting the transformation is also key here – landscape and the elements play a big part in the novel, and have a profound effect on the characters – particularly the main characters of Frank in Northern Queensland and Leon during the Vietnam War.
What do you think of the opening line of After the Fire, A Still Small Voice? Come and let us know on our Facebook page.
What you think makes a great opening line?
A few of my favourites:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” – Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” – Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas (1971)