It is difficult to say what makes a good first line, since I suspect the answer is that it is followed by a good book. So this exercise was, first, one of readerly appreciation (and a very enjoyable and soothing one — I highly recommend it).
But I think (or hope) the closer you read something the more the patterns of it get into your bones and thoughts.
So here I was breaking down some of my favourite first lines to see what I liked about them.
It looks complicated, but that’s because it’s crowded. The process itself (adapted from a style analysis exercise in a grammar course I used to tutor) was simple:
- I wrote the sentences down (in black ink).
- Then using different colours and symbols, I went through marking up nouns, verbs, pronouns, adjectives, etc, looking at one part of speech at a time. This reveals interesting rhythms, like “thick / tenacious / slightly sticky” vs “fabled / glittering / ice-blue / almost comical” (the first is a fairy tale with a pragmatic thread, the second is a historical novel in a fairy-tale mode).
- Down the right-hand side, I made a note of how the sentences sat in the mouth (conversation, open, forward on lips, crisp clicking sounds, warm and rounded tones).
- Then I looked for broader patterns. This is only a sample of five, so it probably doesn’t mean much that more often the setting was centred than the main character, and that degrees of precisions shifted. However all of them were very definite in their pacing and assurance.
The sentences (with some of my notes) are as follows:
- In a way, they were born to be aunts.
— Eva Ibbotson, A Song for Summer
- Destiny is an odd thing
- Noncommittal, but short enough to feel definite
- Eccentric fairytale
- ‘Lymond is back!’
— Dorothy Dunnett, The Game of Kings
- A statement, a quote, a character around whom all revolves, but not a sympathetic point of view
- Definite but reported — not authoritative. But it matters to the speaker.
- In the fabled, glittering world that was St Petersburg before the First World War there lived, in an ice-blue palace overlooking the river Neva, a family on whom the gods seemed to have lavished their gifts with an almost comical abundance.
— Eva Ibbotson, A Countess Below Stairs a.k.a. The Secret Countess
- Beautiful and comical, rich and contained, a place that is to be lost, nostalgic/elegaic, a fairy-tale cloud kingdom to fall out of.
- I shall not say how and why I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven.
— Harriette Wilson, Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs
- Definite, defiant; vigorous and a trifle giddy (or at least focused on own interests).
- Shocking yet not quite salacious (and in fact, judging the reader if they want to know).
- The magic in that land was so thick and tenacious that it settled over the land like chalk dust and over floors and shelves like slightly sticky plaster dust.
— Robin McKinley, Spindle’s End
- Visceral and physical magic.
- A sense of being, layering, instead of movement.
- The place of the whole story: country and domestic, magic and floors and shelves.
- In these times of ours, though concerning the exact year there is no need to be precise, a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark bridge which is of iron, and London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in.
— Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend
- Precise about textures, not times.
- Specific about places, not people.
- Echoes of fairy tale, for all (or because of) its precision — particularly the listing materials the bridges are made of.
- A scene, but not a rapid one — a warm, slow voice.
However, clearly I had not left enough room, so the next day I just looked at one of those sentences.
These notes are on Eva Ibbotson’s A Song for Summer: “In a way, they were born to be aunts.“
- I broke the sentence into elements and drew up a little table with alternative forms of those elements. (“In a way”, “In a manner of speaking”, “Considered in its entirety”, “After a fashion,” etc).
- Then I chose elements from each column and remixed several versions of the sentences.
- For each one, I made a few notes about what it revealed about the structure of the original— insouciant, conversational, tentative but then with a bald statement of fate and intentionality, a tension between limits and intentionality, a tension between what might have been assumed to be the purpose of a life and what it in fact turns into, the implication that the lives of these characters were in want of the main character of this story, i.e. a niece.
And here, just to keep some art in the post, is a complicated lighting/filming setup at the drawing board.
Writing/art exercise (for appreciation and/or for coming up with new ideas/approaches):
- Find something you love (with a love you think will withstand analysis) — a sentence, a trope, a picture, a composition.
- Identify the main elements of it. (Types of words? Shapes? Colour? Characters and interactions?) There isn’t really a correct answer here — it’s just what interests you.
- For each element, make a list of five alternatives that belong to roughly the same category in your mind.
- Choose one from each list of elements, at random, and recombine them. (The trope of “Lover chases beloved through airport” might become “Suspect leads detective under flower market”. An illustration of a wizard throwing a fireball might become “professor catching a soccer ball”.)
- What does this reveal about the mechanics of the original? Was it the set dressing or its construction that appealed most to you?
Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).