Updated: Jan 26, 2021
Exercise for writers: Try using or adapting a famous first line to start a story of your own. I.e.:
“It was a dark and stormy night.” Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1830. Although much reviled and parodied, this is actually a pretty darn good opening. Bulwer-Lytton also contributed that immortal phrase, the pen is mightier than the sword.
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, 1949. I almost don’t want to give the context; this is so rich and curious on its own. But of course the line has done its work and you want to know, so here is the rest of the opening para: “That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea cosy. I can’t say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left.” It’s a good read, but the author is better known for The One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which starts with the line, “Not long ago, there lived in London a young married couple of Dalmatian dogs named Pongo and Missis Pongo.”
I think famous first lines are good for a lot more than just introducing famous novels. They exist in the collective consciousness as immortal memes with literary lives of their own. Which means they’re great to play with. I don’t think we should be over-reverential or intimidated. I think we should try to see what fun things we can write based on their inspiration. (Almost) everyone recognizes them, so that’s an interesting thing we can take advantage of.
It wasn’t a dark and stormy night. Yet. But if he stayed up there on the crest of Bear Hill and continued to cross out and rewrite his opening paragraph, it soon would be. He could see the storm clouds gathering, and the sun was about to set.
He dismissed the sounds behind him in the blueberry bushes without much thought. Small wildlife was common up there. It did not occur to him that bears also liked blueberries.
Muttering and shaking his head, he tore his most recent version out of the notebook and let the wind take it over the cliff and out of sight. He really did not expect to see the torn page appear a moment later, crumpled in the talons of a large and ragged raven as it circled up from somewhere in the darkening forest below.
“Hey!” he cried as the raven and his piece of paper whistled overhead. “That’s my opening!” And in that startled moment, he knew it was. He had finally crystalized the perfect combination of words and written the best possible opening to what could become the best possible story. But he had reflexively and stupidly tossed it away.
He turned and sprinted after the raven, not noticing that he was also heading straight toward the shadowed form of a bear with a mouth full of blueberries.
I’d really like to know what happens next to my foolish writer. Does he get the sheet of paper and save his opener? Does the bear get him? Or does something entirely different happen? But I’ll never know unless I write some more.
Maybe I could start the next paragraph thanks to Doddie Smith with, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. The deep scratches made by the claws of the bear haven’t stopped bleeding yet, and I don’t want to risk getting blood all over my host’s antique carpets.” And then see where that goes! I’m starting to imagine a sort of Walter Mitty of writing who goes on retreats and keeps trying to pen the great American novel, but can’t free himself from famous first lines and the long shadows of the great novelists who proceeded him.
Go ahead and pick up your pen and try a playful rewrite of a famous first line. Then see what story you find yourself writing…
Here are some more of my favorite inspirational first lines:
“All happy families are like each other, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy, 1877 (Google-translated from the original, but usually cited in English as, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Take your pick 🙂
“All children, except one, grow up.” Peter and Wendy, L.M. Barrie, 1911 (And that exceptional child is, of course, the literarily immortal Peter Pan.)
“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. (Start any story with a universal rule, and the reader won’t be able to resit finding out how you’re going to break it.)
“‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White, 1952. (This sure does create a sense of ominous doom in an otherwise ordinary moment…)
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984, George Orwell, 1949. (The rest of the opening paragraph reads, “Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.” And of course in the end the dust gets him.)
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Nealle Hurston, 1937 (So wise and intriguing that of course we have to read more.)
“Call me Ishmael.” Moby-Dick, Herman Melville, 1851. (Why? Is that a real name and if not, why not? Definitely an interesting way to pique our curiosity!)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens, 1859. (Wow. Everything and anything could happen in a story that starts like that.)
“You are about to start reading the new If on a winter night a traveler of Italo Calvino. Take it easy. Recollect. Remove all other thoughts from you.” Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore or On a winter’s night a traveller, Italo Calvino, 1979. (Just strange enough to make you really, really curious, right?)
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier, 1938. (Okay, it’s all about some place called Manderley. But why? A simple way to hook you hard in the opening sentence.)
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway, 1952. (An opening line that raises lots of questions always works well.)
‘It was the day my grandmother exploded.” The Crow Road, Ian Banks, 2008 (The rest of the opening para reads, “I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.” This novel is less well known in the U.S. than in the U.K., where The Guardian proclaimed that it has “One of the best opening lines of any novel.”)
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley, 1953. (The novel itself is not that widely read in the US but the opening line is justly famous, and the book is definitely a good read. The first line is the opening paragraph, and the second paragraph begins like this: “When I came upon the diary, it was lying at the bottom of a rather battered red cardboard collar-box, in which as a small boy I kept my Eton collars.” Also a great opening line!)
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath, 1963, (It continues, “I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers—goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burning alive all along your nerves.”)
“It is difficult to know quite where to begin this story, but I have fixed my choice on a certain Wednesday at luncheon at the Vicarage,” The Murder at the Vicarage, Agatha Christie, (The opening para continues: “The conversation, though in the main irrelevant to the matter in hand, yet contained one or two suggestive incidents which influenced later developments. I had just finished carving some boiled beef (remarkably tough by the way) and on resuming my seat I remarked, in a spirit most unbecoming to my cloth, that any one who murdered Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world at large a service.”)
“Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable.” The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886. (What an intriguing character! Can you adapt the line to a character of your own?)
P.S. Last night I dreamt I went to Bear Hill again…
– Alex Hiam, author of Silent Lee and the Secret of the Side Door Key are available on Amazon.