Friday, 6 June 2008

It was a dark and stormy night

It occurred to me this evening, while in the gym, that I never posted the answers to my First Line Quiz, which was remiss of me. Apologies, and this is now to be corrected!

Basically, if you can't remember, I selected fifteen first lines from famous books and asked you all to guess which book they were from. Here I reveal whether you were wrong or right...

1. There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis

2. 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, by Sylvia Plath

3. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

4. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell

5. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

6. All children, except one, grow up.
Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie

7. Roger, aged seven, and no longer the youngest of the family, ran in wide zigzags, to and fro, across the steep field that sloped up from the lake to Holly Howe, the farm where they were staying for part of the summer holidays.
Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome

8. Call me Ishmael.
Moby Dick, by Hermann Melville

9. μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί' Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε' ἔθηκεν

Sing, goddess, the rage of Achilles the son of Peleus,
the destructive rage that sent countless pains on the Achaeans...

The Iliad, by Homer

10. It was a nice day. All the days had been nice. There had been rather more than seven of them so far, and rain hadn't been invented yet. But clouds massing east of Eden suggested that the first thunderstorm was on its way, and it was going to be a big one.
Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

11. "Yes," said Tom bluntly, on opening the front door. "What do you want?"
Goodnight, Mister Tom, by Michelle Magorian

12. To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

13. In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

14. The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down the river, the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide.
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad (a mean one, this 'un)

15. It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears's house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, by Mark Haddon

Some of them were hard, some were pretty easy, all of them brilliant for one reason or another. So how many of you are kicking yourself now? I have to admit that I had to look up Gatsby and Heart of Darkness, but I would have got all the others.

I'm sure there's been a lot written on first lines - in fact, if any of you know of a good scholarly essay about the topic, please linky - but when has that stopped me writing my own spin on it?

First lines should do one thing: make you want to read on. And it should also (TWO! OUR TWO GREATEST WEAPONS!) do at least one of three things:

1. Introduce a character
2. Introduce the setting
3. Set the tone/narrative voice

The best lines do all three. And they make you ask questions. Like, Moby Dick. "Call me Ishmael". Why? What's this person's real name? Why don't they want to be called that anymore? Why Ishmael? Who are we supposed to be in this instance? Or Peter Pan, who is this child who doesn't grow up? And why? --> HOOKED. Or if they don't make you ask questions, like The Grapes of Wrath or Heart of Darkness, they draw you in with their prose, the beautiful choice of word and rhythm and sentence length, and you find yourself reading on almost without noticing, because the words are carrying you along.

What are all your favourite first lines? Mine is the first line of Swallows and Amazons simply because it's one of my favourite books, but I think the best one in that list is 1984, because in a line it sums up the book - normality skewed and perverted. Always more chilling than pure horror, don't you think?


  1. 'If a city is a lady, then Houston is a whore.'

    You can't get better than that.

    The 1978 novelisation of the movie Capricorn One by one Bernard L. Ross, who I've only just discovered was actually a youthful Ken Follett.

  2. Aargh... I can't believe I got 1984 wrong!

  3. I still think Dickens has it wrapped...


    "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 ..."

    "London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather."

  4. For pure nostalgia purposes, my favourite first line is this one:

    "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

    But definitely the best is 1984. I remember reading that and stopping after the first sentence just because I thought it was utter perfection.

  5. P.S. I did actually start again, not just read the first sentence then chuck it. Just thought I should make that clear...