Opening lines: surpassing the introductory
Franz Kafka claimed that “first impressions are always unreliable”, but are they? Rhian Hutchings assesses the importance of books’ opening lines and why some are more impactful than others.
If the cliché “don’t judge a book by its cover” is anything to go by, one would also assume that opening lines are of little significance. A novel’s first words, however, are key to opening up its fictional world. Like a painting’s preliminary brushstroke, opening lines are undoubtedly important, as they set a precedent for the narrative that is to come.
The wistful first line of The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley has had a sizeable impact on literary culture: “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The phrase’s legacy, one could argue, transcends the novel’s plot and characters. Even when separated from its context, the line remains a powerful statement about the complexities of time and memory.
Does a text risk losing momentum if the author places too much emphasis on its beginning?
Creative writing workshops often teach attendees to instantly grab the reader’s attention. But does a text risk losing momentum if the author places too much emphasis on its beginning?
An opening line should showcase the author’s voice with clarity and confidence. Despite the pressure placed on writers to make their opening line shockingly extravagant, straightforward statements are often more memorable. The best opening lines, then, are those that effortlessly conceal layers of meaning.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice‘s perfectly exhibits this skill: “it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The narrator expertly captures the audience’s attention, and they are left wanting more: why is this statement labelled as a “truth”? Who makes up the “universal”? A book’s first line acts like a house’s first brick: the author must immerse the reader into a literary world that they are yet to encounter, while simultaneously arousing their interest and thirst for knowledge.
The best novels stay with the reader long after they turn the last page. A good opening line keeps its hands outstretched towards potential readers, perpetually welcoming them into unfamiliar scenarios. Like the elusive and ever-changing light reflected by water, a reader’s appreciation of a first line is entirely dependent on their overall understanding of the text.