My Books

Sunday, September 7, 2014

First Lines

“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin[1].”

“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” everyone says. But what about its first line? The first line is what makes me decide to go on or put it down and reach for another book. If the first line is really a smashing good line, I decide to savor the words, and don’t go on to my usual step two in looking over a new book; skimming over the first paragraph to see if it gets interesting later. Of course the older authors often deleted the second step by the simple act of making their first line the first paragraph.  

“Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17-, and go back to the time when my father kept the ‘Admiral Benbow’ inn, and the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut, fist took up his lodging under our roof[2].”

I love books. I adore good books. Today I decided to pull a stack of a few favorites off my shelf and look at the first lines of each. See how many you know.

“Thirty years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun, one day[3].”  

They are all so different! But each one has the distinct flavor of the book. It sets a scene, and a feeling, and informs you what to expect if you do go on. A good first line tends to excite me, even if it is not an exciting kind of book, because it means I have a new story to devour.

“On the 26th of July, 1864, a magnificent yacht was steaming along the North Channel at full speed, with a strong breeze blowing from the N. E.[4]

From that, we know this is going to be a book where we get lots of boring, needless information like dates and which way the wind is blowing. But we also know it is going to be a book about traveling, and ships, and we will probably learn something we didn’t know. That sounds like a treat!

“Once upon a time, long ago, near the Land of Stories, lived young Tom Trueheart[5].”

I hear a deliberately old fashioned opening, a mention of stories, and a good name. Yes, I am hooked to read on. I don't learn much from this first line, but I am interested nonetheless. Sometimes a first line can bring up simple interest to see what the story is about, or sometimes it can bring a smile, and a desire to find more smiles along the way.

“While I would not go so far, perhaps, as to describe the heart as actually leaden, I must confess that on the eve of starting to do my bit of time at Deverill Hall I was definitely short on chirpiness[6].”

First lines give you an idea of what you are getting into. But after you have gotten into them, the first line of a book you have loved for years feels like the hug of an old friend. It elicits the same delightful hominess and expectation of fun times ahead as it rolls over your tongue.

“Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy[7].”

It feels so warm and right after you already love the book. And the books you loved as a child are in an entirely different category. Those stories you read over, and over, in between skinning your knees and eating popsicles, bring an automatic smile to your face and a little spark to your eye.

“In merry England in the time of old, when good King Henry the Second ruled the land, there lived within the green glades of Sherwood Forest, near Nottingham Town, a famous outlaw whose name was Robin Hood[8].”

The first line of a well-loved book has the power to transport you back to the last time you read it. Yes, time travel is perfectly possible, just so long as you use the confines of your own mind and a good book. Curl up in a chair and you can go anywhere, they say, and they are right. But you don’t always know where you’re going when you begin the journey.

“The Jebel es Zubleh is a mountain fifty miles and more in length, and is so narrow that its tracery on the map give it a likeness to a caterpillar crawling from the south to the north[9].”

I would never guess I could be taken from a boring, strange mountain to beholding my Savior in all His saving might through another man’s eyes. But that is exactly what happens. And I wouldn’t have it begin any other way. A book has the power to send us on adventures that we would hope never to actually get into ourselves. And part of the fun is trying to guess from that first tiny tid-bit in the first line where it is taking us.

“’If you were a genuine Army Colonel,’ Pilgrim said, ‘Instead of one of the most bogus and unconvincing frauds I’ve ever seen, you’d rate three stars for this[10].”

A first line is a powerful thing. It darts out of a book and wraps around your mind. If you dare to crack a book open and look at the first chapter, you will read the first line. And then what will you find? Is it adventure, humor, a simple fact, or a feeling that is suddenly transplanted from the page directly into you? Whatever it may be, once read it is a part of you, and there is nothing you can do to get rid of it.

“The Master was walking most unsteady, his legs tripping each other[11].”

Be careful cracking open the cover of a book, because you never know what that first line might be. And be careful, the next time you are sitting with a blank white sheet in front of you and considering starting your next story; the first line written will be the first line read. A silly thing to say? It is until you think about what a first line is capable of. It can either draw a reader in, or make them yawn and push your volume away.

“A wind sprang high in the west like a wave of unreasonable happiness and tore eastward across England, trailing with it the frosty scent of forests and the cold intoxication of the sea[12].”

Take a moment to read a first line on its own and see what it does. It is a story starter, a scene setter, an emotion evoker, and a crooked finger whispering ‘come closer and read on.’ Kind of creepy? Then stop thinking about it, and just read on. But if you are trying to write a story, do stop and think about it. And then go reread your first line, and let it do for you what it will do for your readers.

“This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve[13].”

And then you have a whole different category of books, those that begin, and you plug away through the dull parts on into the actual story, and then come back and look it over, and feel cheated as you realize the line which got you into this thing in the first place, really had nothing whatever to do with the story itself.

“In 1815, M. Charles Francois-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of D-[14].”  

But it is possible to forgive such a beginning if the story turns out to be good despite it. But in general, first lines are beautiful and exciting because they begin a journey and usher you in to someone else’s words, and even mind. Each author has a perspective different then you, and each story reflects that. And each first line is the beginning point, and a place for you to notice something new.

“So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by / and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness[15].”

Now pick up a book and notice something. Put down Pintarest and the T.V. remote, and go read a book. Because you might just find a new favorite, and you might find a first line that will change your life. Don’t think it’s possible for one little first sentence to change your life? Dare to believe otherwise. I will leave you with one more first line, and let you draw your own conclusions;

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth[16].”  

[1] A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
[2] Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island
[3] Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit
[4] Jules Verne, In Search of the Castaways
[5] Ian Beck, The Secret History of Tom Trueheart
[6] P.G. Wodehouse, The Mating Season
[7] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
[8] Howard Pyle, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood
[9] Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur
[10] Alistair MacLean, Circus
[11] Richard Harding Davis, The Bar Sinister
[12] G.K. Chesterton, Manalive
[13] Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White
[14] Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
[15] Translated by Seamus Heaney, Beowulf
[16] Holy men taught by the Holy Spirit, Genesis 1:1

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