I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
Thus begins John Irving’s, A Prayer for Owen Meany. In his introduction to the novel, Irving acknowledges the power of his opening line: ‘I may one day write a better first sentence to a novel than that of A Prayer for Owen Meany, but I doubt it.’ He goes on: ‘What makes the first sentence […] such a good one is that the whole novel is contained in it.’ Maybe that’s why that line has stayed with me. Certainly it’s one of the very few opening lines to a novel that I actually remember.
Writing a good opening sentence is something of a preoccupation for writers but opening lines don’t have to be memorable. Opening lines are barbed hooks. Launchpads! The function of that first sentence is to get the reader past itself and into the story. Even so, I do love a good opening line, and I love it even more if it stays with me. Here are three that have:
‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.’
From Louisa M. Alcott’s, Little Women, this opener has probably stuck because Little Women was my mother’s favourite book from childhood, and because we’ve jokingly quoted this line to each other over the years when we’ve been doing the Christmas shopping. But looking at it again, I can see that whilst this line might not contain the whole novel, it does a lot of work. We immediately know that this Christmas is unusual, that in previous years there have been presents, so we can infer that for some reason Jo’s family has fallen on hard times. Not so hard that the floorboards are bare (she’s lying on a rug) but hard enough to make her grumble. The fact that Jo’s grumbling (not weeping), and the fact that she’s lying on the rug gives the reader the impression that Jo is a tomboy, and that despite the absence of Christmas presents, she’s at liberty to grumble and be herself. Immediately the reader senses that Jo is with her family, at home.
‘Mrs Dalloway said she’d buy the flowers herself.’
From Virginia Woolf’s, Mrs Dalloway. The first time I tried to read this novel, I failed miserably but I did remember that opening line. Ten years later, I attempted the novel again and whipped through it, basking in the glow of a newfound admiration for and appreciation of Virginia Woolf’s writing. The line is short but weighty. It’s emphatic. It kindles curiosity about Mrs Dalloway. Would she usually leave the purchasing of flowers to someone else, and why, on this occasion, is she taking charge? Why is she buying flowers at all? And who is telling the story? The concise opening statement is a seed ready to burst into life. It’s kinetic. Maybe that’s why it’s memorable.
‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’
From Dodie Smith’s, I Capture the Castle, a brilliant opening line, the kind of opener that makes you stop and re-read, just to check you got it right. Writing while sitting in the kitchen sink? Why would anyone do that? It’s a short, sharp, rap on the knuckles. Straight away you’re invested. You want to know everything! When I was little, and we had a proper big sink – not one of the half-bowl affairs that everyone has now – I’d sometimes be bathed in it. Maybe that’s why this opening line has stayed with me; the image it provokes blends with my own sense of nostalgia.
Do you have a favourite opening line of your own?