They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.–My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
In the spring of that year an epidemic of rabies broke out in Ether County, Georgia.–Paris Trout by Pete Dexter
We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.–The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel.–A Visit from the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan
I’m collecting first line of novels that I think provide particularly good models and possibly rules of thumb for those of us hoping for just that one read. Why are these so important? I can’t help remembering my trip to the Backspace Conference in New York, sitting around a table for a “two-pages-two-minutes” critique with editors and agents. Reader after reader got stopped before getting past one-minute-one-page, or in some cases, thirty-seconds-one-paragraph. “This is too familiar,” said the agent. “I’ve heard this a million times before,” said the editor.
That experience impressed on me something my own experience as a browser in bookstores confirms: yes, the language of your whole book has to sing, but if you want people to pay the price of the concert, the first line has to be so high and clear and pure it blasts through their earphones as they’re passing on the street.
I thought I’d spend a few posts thinking about why these are examples of first lines that did that for me, in hopes of deriving some ideas as to how it’s done. I’d love it if readers would post their own favorites, with some speculation as to what makes the lines work. Be specific! Don’t just tell us “I like this” or “It works for me.” Why does it work? How does it work? So we can see whether we’re hitting your criteria in our own efforts.
Obviously, it’s not that the first line carries the book. The paragraphs that follow have to bear out the promise. But I do think that one strength of these lines is that they do make a promise. We read on to see if that promise is going to be kept.
Okay, the Daphne du Maurier line: what promise does it make?
It’s actually fairly simple at first glance–this is a haunted place. Only something bad can be set in motion here.
That promise resonates for me because I’m a firm believer in the truism that in narrative, only trouble is interesting. Promise your readers upcoming trouble in twelve simple words and they will at least finish the paragraph.
There’s more going on, though, I submit. This, like Rebecca, is to a great extent a Gothic novel, and “the old days” conjure the fatally romantic past that, in Gothic novels, no one will escape. The old days aren’t gone; they’re hovering in the shadow cast by this nameless “they” whose memory just won’t be expunged. The whole atmosphere of the book emerges: something looming. Its shadow is that of the noose.
I hear the rhythm of the sentence as well:
They used to HANG men /at Four TURNings /in the OLD days
It breaks into three parts, like a poetic stanza, with an accent on the next to last syllable of each phrase. We almost have three anapests, with a falling syllable after each. There’s all kinds of literary and neuro-cognitive speculation as to why rhythm captures us as it does; suffice it to note here that the accented moments are the central moments that almost deliver a message in themselves: HANG, TURN, OLD. Something old is going to turn on us and deliver us to that noose.
I’m going to finish the series before I try to generalize some rules from this example. I’m curious whether I’ll see the same things in all four.