First Lines: A Study: Part 1: The Five-Star Books

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Gwen and Neekers recently posted on Apprentice, Never Master a challenge where each tried to guess a book from its first line alone. I was intrigued by this challenge and inspired to study the first lines of my favorites. Only “favorite” is not very quantifiable, so in the interest of science, I am naming my favorites only those that have received a five-star rating on this blog—though there are others that are favorites even while I recognize that they do not objectively deserve five stars. I think it best to exclude primers because of the nature of their text. The books in this study must have a first line that is in fact a complete sentence. To narrow the list further I’ve just grabbed the titles from 2014.

Some lines establish setting:

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.

“First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.”

The time of year is established in this sentence. It’s possible to guess that we are on Earth, in a culture that uses the Julian calendar.

The Kingkiller Chronicles, Book 1: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.

“It was night again.”

Rothfuss, man, you’ve let me down. “I demand poetry, and when I want it, and I want it now” (A Knight’s Tale). I suppose this line does establish the time of day.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Book 1: Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede.

“Linderwall was a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable.”

This first sentence begins to draw a map. We are in Linderwall. It is a kingdom, so a monarchal government and probably a patriarchal society, though sadly, I think most of us would be a touch confused if a writer chose to establish a “queendom.” Word’s dictionary does not even recognize “queendom.” So either this is a patriarchal society or we as readers are limited by our patriarchal language. Linderwall is large as kingdoms go. It has mountains to its east. Does the sun rise in the east over Linderwall? Is this why the mountains are called Morning? Learning and wisdom and particularly those who question conventions are valued in Linderwall. The number five is fashionable. We do not know why. In fact, I’d not noticed this tidbit before and now want to reread the series looking for instances of “five.” Of these three examples, this sentence probably works hardest.

Some lines introduce a character:

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert N. Munsch.

“Elizabeth was a beautiful princess.”

Elizabeth is female, a princess, and beautiful. We’re given a character, her name, her title, her status, and a little bit about her physical appearance, though most of that is left to our imagination. She is from a monarchal country, and of the royal line. We can assume something of her family and upbringing, though we might later be corrected about our notions.

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton.

“Bon Agornin writhed on his deathbed, his wings beating as if he would fly to his new life in his old body.”

A male character, Bon Agornin, is dying, probably in pain, and he has wings! So again, a character, a name, a little bit of a physical description, and now too the character’s present health (or lack thereof).

This is dialogue (and in fact the book contains nothing but dialogue), and so establishes the existence of two characters, but tells us very little about either. (For the purposes of this study, pretend there are no illustrations.)

Waiting is Not Easy: An Elephant and Piggie Book by Mo Willems.

“GERALD!”

Here is the speaker and Gerald, presumably male because of the history of the name Gerald.

Some pull double-duty. This one establishes a character and a setting:

The Kiss That Missed by David Melling.

“Once upon a Tuesday, the king was in a hurry as usual.”

We are in another monarchal society. This time the king is the acting character. He is in a hurry. This is a usual occurrence for him, so we can reason that either he keeps a busy schedule or is perpetually late or both—or he may just be one of those people who always hurries, never stopping to enjoy life. It is Tuesday, so we also get a day of the week, and again, the impression of a Julian calendar. There’s also an echo of the fairy tale opening “once upon a time” that hints at genre.

This one opens on an event, but also introduces a character:

Penguin and Pinecone by Salina Yoon.

“One day, Penguin found a curious object.”

The character, Penguin, finds… something. That something piques his curiosity.

The second person narrator is weird. She speaks directly to the audience.

Wherever You Are My Love Will Find You by Nancy Tillman.

“I wanted you more than you will ever know, so I sent love to follow wherever you go.”

This sentence, though, establishes the narrator’s feeling towards the audience, and then personifies love giving it mobility beyond its usual ability. There may then be a touch of magical realism to this story. Also it rhymes, and in the book is printed:

            “I wanted you more

            than you will ever know,

            so I sent love to follow

            wherever you go.”

My sample here is really too small to draw any conclusions, but we have done a short survey of some of the openings that authors employ, and let us content ourselves with pondering on that.

Thoughts? What’re some of the opening lines of your favorite books? Share in comments below! I’d be interested.

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About Kathryn

My love of books has been carefully cultivated by the adults who raised me and also by the friends who love to share. My life has led me down long library shelves, to online forums, fanfiction sites, the front of a lecture hall, and into the desks of college classrooms. With an English degree and a couple master’s classes in Children’s Literature, I am now a bookseller for Barnes & Noble. I have been an editor for Wizarding Life Networks (the people who brought you Wizarding Life, Panem October, and MyHogwarts now HogwartsIsHere).

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