Teaching started again this week, after something a bit longer than what you might call a break. More like a brake. In any case, it got me thinking about openings, what they are and how they work. I began to pull books off the shelf looking for examples. This wasn’t completely random: I went looking for beginnings I’d loved, first lines that have lodged themselves in my inner ear, lines that come back to me even when I can barely remember the name of a person I was introduced to 5 minutes ago, or mistake the dog for one of the children.
Everyone probably knows Jane Austen’s universally acknowledged truth, about the single man and the fortune. There are others with as much resonance: ‘Call me Ishmael’, anyone? ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again?’ (Herman Melville, Moby Dick / Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca)
I think my all time favourite is Maxine Hong Kingston’s: “ ‘You must not tell anyone,’ my mother said, ‘what I am about to tell you.’ ” (The Woman Warrior)
Close second would be the one that sometimes wakes me up at night, mid-shiver: “It was a pagan place and circular.” (Edna O’Brien: A Pagan Place)
Then there’s Cloudstreet (Tim Winton): “Rose Pickles knew something bad was going to happen. Something really bad, this time.” Or Tim O’Brien’s “First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha.” (The Things They Carried); or Toni Morrison’s Beloved: “124 was spiteful.” There’s Jane Eyre, locked in the red room by Charlotte Bronte, or Clare Boylan’s children, walking into a winter wood with a baby, a pram, a hen and a paper bag sounding of bells (Holy Pictures).
Every single one of them sets us up for something riveting and makes sure we’ll stick around to watch it unfold. Do you have a favourite opening line? Do you know why you like it?