For the next few First Line Fridays, I thought we’d try something a little different. Rather than giving a thumbs up or thumbs down to a particular opening line, it might be interesting to analyze the various types of first lines that are possible.
One of the most basic things a first line can do is establish setting, so let’s kick this off with a few openings that quite literally “set the stage” for their stories. I find that a lot of authors carry this dramatist’s compulsion, so the examples are pretty plentiful.
Though I’ve never met anyone who’s read it, Edward George Bullward-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford gives us one of the most commonly quoted (and parodied) opening phrases ever:
“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
A little hackneyed? Yes. But the “setting setter” isn’t limited to 3rd rate scribblers. We’ve covered similar lines from Orwell and Hemingway, as well:
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” — from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four
“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.” — from Hemingway’s, A Farewell to Arms
Very simple, but very effective. I love how Orwell absolutely pantses his reader with the clock “striking thirteen,” and I love how Hemingway’s phrase “of that year” makes us feel like we’re in the middle of a fireside chat and he’s about to launch into a story we’ve already asked for.
Here are some others:
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.” —from Sylvia Plath’s, The Bell Jar
“The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods.” — from Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” —from William Gibson’s Neuromancer
So? What say you? Do you like the “setting setter?” Or is it too hokey, too obviously reminding you that you’re being told a story?