What are the best first lines in fiction?

Novelists say they must write snappier first lines in order to grip today's distracted readers. But the classics can teach us a thing or two about arresting openings, says John Walsh

Raymond Chandler had some good advice for writers: "When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand." Good counsel indeed for any writer whose masterpiece is temporarily bogged down in reflection, description, philosophising or fancy prose. But it applies only to crime fiction, doesn't it? Surely the mainstream novel doesn't need such low-level manipulations to interest its readers (who are perfectly happy with reflection, description, et cetera)?

Think again. According to a groundswell of opinion, 21st-century writers are losing the battle for the reader's attention – and must do something about it pronto.

The issue was recently raised at the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature (they're some words you seldom see in the same sentence) in Dubai when three writers talked about the importance of gripping readers from the first line. "I think people these days are so distracted in terms of iPads and iPhones," said Simon Kernick, "that… you need to bring them straight into the story very quickly indeed. If you spend too much time setting things up, it's not going to work."

Richard Madeley, the TV presenter turned novelist, concurred, saying: "The stories of Jane Austen and so on are wonderful but the days are gone when you could take a leisurely approach to writing. Other distractions mean you really have to grab the reader by the throat."

I think that by the phrase "the stories of Jane Austen and so on", Mr Madeley means "the classic English novel". Has he or Mr Kernick opened one lately? Wuthering Heights begins, "I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with", which pitches you straight into the story. Middlemarch starts, "Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress", a wonderfully sleek opening that makes us want to know more about both Ms Brooke and her acidulous chronicler. And, of course, Pride and Prejudice starts with the only opening sentence of a novel that everyone knows by heart. Certainly, there was lots of creaking, Thomas Hardy-style exposition in 19th-century novels, but the old masters knew a few things about snagging the reader's interest.

Must modern authors adopt thriller-like strategies to succeed? Jojo Moyes, who was also at the Dubai festival, said she had changed the way she began her novels after hearing from readers and seeing reviews on Amazon. "They said it had taken people a while to get into this or that book, but they had stuck with it. That told me something: that I needed to speed up."

Speeding up – the Holy Grail of the 21st century; speeded-up personal communications and news reporting, faster broadband, instant reviews of things while you're watching them, live streaming, fashions in food, in music, in pop-up culture, more tweets per hour in your timeline than you can actually read. Does the novel, too, have to get faster? It's nonsensical to suggest such a thing.

A novel has its ideal pace. Eleanor Catton's Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries is 823 pages long, but almost every sentence advances the fantastically elaborate plot. Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, the previous Booker winner, opens with a brilliantly arresting sentence – "His children are falling from the sky" – before embarking on 400 pages of vivid and complex scene-setting, with voices and pronouns tumbling over each other, yet you do not find yourself muttering, "Get on with it, Hilary."

We should be wary of nostrums that prescribe what the modern novel should or shouldn't do. Insisting that every fiction must have an arresting first sentence will give us a thousand variants of the man coming through the door with a gun. That's bearable. What is unbearable is the requirement that novels should move at breakneck speed, lest the lazy, idle, grunting, screen-distracted reader might fall asleep. Taking the reader by the heart is preferable to grabbing them by the throat.

 

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