Opening Lines

I’ve been mulling about opening lines . Don’t know why. Another reason to avoid writing all the stuff that comes AFTER the opening line.

Isn’t this just the greatest opening line of a science fiction novel, ever?

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

That’s from George Orwell’s 1984  of course.  And the sheer ordinariness of the prose and the observation are beautifully counterpointed by the science fictional weirdness of a world where clocks strike thirteen.  It grabs, utterly.

Another favourite opening line of mine is from Larry Niven’s Ringworld:

     In the night-time heart of Beirut, in one of a row of general-address transfer booths, Louis Wu flicked into reality.

It’s the same trick; the juxtaposing of the ordinary with the extraordinary.  And with no shilly-shallying, you’re into the world of the story.

In civilian literature, there are some classic opening lines that always get quoted.  These two for instance:

     It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.   (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen).

     All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy it its own way. (Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy).

The trick here is to create an omniscient narrator making generalisations about life that will be exemplified in the story that follows.  The calm confidence in the tone of both authors assures the reader that everything in the remainder of the novel will be the really good stuff, from the best of writers; not at ALL your usual crap. 

In fact both assertions are open to debate.   I acknowledge no such universal truth about single men in possession of a fortune. It may have been true in Austen’s world, but I only have her word for it.    And I don’t necessarily agree with Tolstoy’s theory about families either; but his air of authority sweeps me along.  That’s class.

Compare that with the opening line of Philip Pullman’s  Northern Lights:

    Lyra and her demon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.

There’s no omniscient narrator there; no generalisations about life.  Just one person doing one thing, as observed by a neutral observer who says what he sees with the minimum of commentary. 

But the first four words play the ‘strikes thirteen’ trick; strangeness is introduced by the unusual name (Lyra) and the casually mentioned fact that Lyra has a ‘demon’. 

Lyra then moves without adjectives (she doesn’t move furtively, or swiftly, or skulkily) through a Hall (not ‘hall’) that’s darkening (so we have a mental image of fading light) whilst taking care to keep to one side (so we imagine Lyra’s position in this darkened Hall), out of sight of the kitchen – indicating that’s where the jeopardy lies.

In totally self effacing prose, Pullman has therefore told us who our heroine is, how strange she is, where she’s moving and that she’s in some unspecified jeopardy.    No pyrotechnics; but you just HAVE to read on.

Robert E. Howard however (one of the great stylists of SFF) uses bolder prose in the opening line of his Conan novel, Conan the Conqueror:

     The long tapers flickered, sending the black shadows wavering along the walls, and the velvet tapestries rippled.

No protagonist; no jeopardy; no self effacement.  Instead, openly poetic prose which balances two -ed words i.e.e. ‘flickered’and ‘rippled’ . with a sinuous ‘wavering’ in the middle.  Nothing is static; candlelight is flickering shadows are wavering; tapestries are rippling (implying a breeze, though a line later we find there IS no wind in the chamber.)  It’s sensual prose that defines a period (the past, when dwellings were lit with candles and decorated with tapestries)  and hence evokes a WORLD that we are going to enjoy inhabiting.  It’s ‘more is more’ writing, a far cry from the unobtrusiveness of Pullman.  But equally beguiling.

The opening lines (I’m cheating, it’s more than one line) of Paolo Bacigalupi’s stunningly good The Wind Up Girl are:

    ‘No! I don’t want the mangosteen.’  Anderson Lake leans forward, pointing.  ‘I want that one, there.  Kaw pollami nee khap.  The one with the red skin and the green hairs.’

This is one of the best opening chapters I’ve ever read,  and it combines Pullman’s unobtrusive putting of images into the reader’s head  with Howard’s sensual poetry. In the English words, we see Anderson Lake leaning, and pointing, and we see what he points at too; so our eyes are swivelling around as we read.  But we also have the Thai words, which I assume have the meaning ‘The one with the red skin and the green hairs’, but since I speak no Thai, I just hear them.  Kaw, Pollami, Nee,Khap. It has the rhythm of waves lapping a shoreline; and the words look good on the page too.  I bet this line isn’t half so effective if you actually DO understand Thai.  ‘Mangosteen’ is also a magical word.  ‘I don’t want the cucumber’ wouldn’t do the job nearly as well.

Here are the opening lines of The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, another of SFF’s great stylists:

     It’s possible I already had some presentiment of my future.  The locked and rusted gate that stood before us,  with wisps of river fog threading its spikes like the mountain paths, remains in my mind now as the symbol  of my exile.

This is a great blend of future tense and present tense writing.  Wolfe tips us the nod that exciting things will happen to the narrator, Severian; he even tells us that Severian will be exiled.  So we ANTICIPATE much jeopardy to come.  But he also, at some length, describes a single image; a gate.  It’s locked, it’s rusted,  it has spikes; yup, we can that pretty vividly by now. But as well as evoking his exile, the gate (because of the fog wisping through it) reminds him of mountain paths; which tells us that Severian lives in an area with mountains, which have paths. So we’re seeing two things at once, through the deftest of similes.

Wolfe puts images in our heads; but he also foxes our brain with devious tense work.  This is a line by someone in the far future recollecting an image he saw many years in the past which gave him a presentiment of what happened to him in the not-so-far future.  Talk about time travel!  It’s dazzling prose, yet somehow it’s never confusing. (The STORY is confusing as it develops, not least because the narrator is horrifically unreliable, but moment by moment with Wolfe you always know what you’re seeing.)

For sheer intriguingness, it’s hard to beat these opening lines from Alastair Reynolds’ House of Suns:

    I was born in a house with a million rooms, built on a small airless world on the edge of an empire of light and commerce that the adults called the Golden Hour, for a reason I did not yet grasp.

Beautiful; rhythmed; magical, visual; and utterly gripping.

But if it’s take-no-shit pulp prose you’re looking for, try the first sentence of Lilith Saintcrow’s Working for the Devil:

    My working relationship with Lucifer began on a rainy Monday.

How can you not want to read more!

No one does it better than Stephen though, the King of gripping prose:

    Almost everyone thought the man and boy were father and son.  (‘Salem’s Lot).

But almost everyone is clearly wrong, or the sentence wouldn’t be structured like that.  So we ask: Why!!!!

Last up is Neil Gaiman, in my favourite of his books, American Gods:

    Shadow had done three years in prison.  He was big enough, and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time.  So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself card tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.

Wonderfully restrained evocative prose, with a laugh-out-loud  funny joke in the middle sentence.  After this great start, the book gets even better.

But isn’t it wonderful when a novel STARTS so well?

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