First Lines: You Can't Please Everyone

Monday, May 8, 2017

No first line will appeal to everyone. If that’s your aim as a writer, you will never stop fiddling and start submitting. So find something you like and go with it.

Although I’m a Dickens fan, I have personally never seen the attraction in “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . .” The entire paragraph is a single run-on sentence that goes on and on in the same vein, and I just want it to stop. Yet this is often quoted as an example of a good first line.

I also can’t see the attraction in “Call me Ishmael” from Moby Dick, which is probably the most quoted example of a good first line. Like most of the readers from Herman Melville’s time, I know who Ishmael was: a Biblical figure (Abraham’s oldest son) who was sent into exile because Abraham’s wife was jealous that Ishmael would take first place over her own son, Isaac. So yes, maybe the Ishmael of Moby Dick was cast out too, and that probably isn’t his real name since he says “Call me Ishmael.” But although it creates some mystery, it doesn’t make me curious enough to keep reading.

Fortunately, it isn’t just the first sentence that counts. “Call me Ishmael” doesn’t grab my attention, but the rest of the paragraph does. It shows the narrator as a highly-educated man who is working as a common sailor. Now Ishmael intrigues me, so I want to learn more about him.

Then there is A Christmas Carol. Again, the first sentence is mildly interesting, but it is the narrator’s continued rambling that sets the tone of the book and makes me want to read on. Here is the entire first paragraph.

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

This passage tells me repeatedly that Marley is dead, but it doesn’t tell me why that matters. The first paragraph leaves me with a question that won’t get answered unless I continue reading.

The next paragraph doesn’t provide the answer, but it keeps my attention because the detour is interesting and has its own purpose. Here’s the second paragraph.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefor permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

This paragraph sets the tone (informal and conversational) and introduces me to the omniscient narrator. That last point is important because now I won’t be thrown out of the story when the narrator adds something that the characters themselves can’t know.

But I still don’t understand why it matters that Marley is dead. Will the next paragraphs answer my question?

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnized it with an undoubted bargain.

The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance—literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.

Now I’m even more curious. What remarkable thing is going to happen because Marley is dead? If I wasn’t hooked after the first paragraph, I am by the fourth. And that allows Dickens to take six more pages to fill in Scrooge’s character before answering the question that peaked my interest in the first place. Six pages where I keep reading even though I don’t yet know how those events relate to Marley’s death.

So how do you get a reader to keep reading? Grab the reader’s attention in the first few paragraphs and clue the reader in to the style and narrator of the book. If everything comes together, you may have a new fan.

Over the next five weeks I’ll cover the main types of effective openings as identified in last week’s post. Next week I’ll start with a bang.

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