Molly Clearly explores the importance of opening lines and discusses some of her favourites.
William Wordsworth once wrote “To begin, begin”; three simple words that have tormented writers, students and procrastinators alike ever since. As November settles in, the struggle of beginning essays looms and some inspiration may be needed. Those writers who make it past the initial struggles of putting the pen to the page are a reminder that greatness can often await in literary first lines. Sometimes, the opening words of a book can say so much with so little, just like “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta.” And other times, they can leave you staring into the distance, wondering just what you are about to let yourself in for; like 1984’s “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
“Those writers who make it past the initial struggles of putting the pen to the page are a reminder that greatness can often await in literary first lines.”
Other greats include Holden Caulfield’s beautifully bratty and concise rejection of the opening line subgenre in itself…“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” Whilst the statement that “All of this happened, more or less”, Kurt Vonnegut’s qualifier to Slaughterhouse Five expertly begins the moulding of reality and fiction into one entity that defines the novel.
However, it is a truth universally acknowledged (in my mind at least), that the contest for the greatest opening line was won in 1813 with Austen’s inaugural statement in Pride and Prejudice: “…that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The magnitude of this opening line being capable of communicating not only the linguistic complexity of Austen’s genius, but the weight of her satire and wit on the society around her is a feat I feel that no one else could achieve in a mere 23 words. And if the somewhat mind-bending syntax of Austen’s opening lines are too much to aspire to this deadline season, there are always the words of Lizzie Benet’s modern protégé to fall back on: Bridget Jones’s opening promise that “I will not drink more than fourteen alcohol units a week” as an entirely more relevant objective.