Back to our First Line Fridays series. We’ve covered setting, axioms and dialogue, now let’s take a peek into the future.
Sometimes the best way to kick off a novel is to come right out and hang the ending before the reader like a carrot before a horse. This doesn’t necessarily mean the story is spoiled, mind you, but when the reader is given some sense of destination the immediate reaction tends to be “Whoa! Okay, so that’s where we’re going? I’m game.” Here’s a perfect example, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” —from One Hundred Years of Solitude.
We covered another such first line not too long ago, by Jeffrey Eugenides:
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” — from Middlesex.
Here’s what I wrote about that line at the time, it applies just as well to the first example:
"I love how the author delivers the crux of the plot in the very first line. He’s still going to take us through the twists and turns of a novel-length work, the slow burn of details, the crescendo of backstories and present action. But right there in the first line, he stabs his finger at the map and shows us our destination. It has the effect of making you wonder ‘how the devil are we going to get from here to there?’ And I, for one, was sold on the story."
Here’s another one, from Robert Graves’ I, Claudius :
"I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as "Claudius the Idiot," or "That Claudius," or "Claudius the Stammerer," or "Clau-Clau-Claudius" or at best as "Poor Uncle Claudius," am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the "golden predicament" from which I have never since become disentangled."
But sometimes all you have to do is hint at the ending. Others have handled the peek-into-the-future opening much more subtly. Take the first line of Dickens’s David Copperfield :
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
Or Paul Auster’s City of Glass:
“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not."
In that example, we don’t even have the slightest idea what “it” is that the wrong number started, but there’s a hint of the story and its ending in there that makes you want to learn more. Count me as a fan of the peek-into-the-future first line.