01 December 2005

It was a dark and stormy night

"It was a dark and stormy night," is actually the first sentence of Madeleine L'Engle's classic, A Wrinkle in Time.

As first sentences go, dark and stormy nights may not be the thing to really hook a reader. But first sentences (or in some cases, pages or chapters) are critically important to get a reader interested. Bored at the beginning can mean that a reader will put a piece down.

I have used the first sentence test to pick what book to read more than once. Recently, I had this experience (sort of) with Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's Peter and the Starcatchers. What I read was, "Peter was the leader of the boys, because he was oldest. Or maybe he wasn't." An astute reader will note that technically, those are the third and fourth sentences in the book. But while browsing in the book store, they were the first sentences I read. I promptly went and got the book at the library. First sentence test passed.

Example two. "Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton more than three hours, that they meant to murder him." (Word Nerd begs forgiveness if this quote isn't perfect... I'm doing it from memory.) This is the opening sentence to Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. Curious?

Because first lines are so important, the really good ones have gone down in history. Call me Ishmael. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. See?

So. Ready to see how well first lines stick? (Or how well you remember your literature classes?) What books do the following first lines begin?

1. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife
2. Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show..
3.In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since
4. He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf stream and he had gone 84 days now without taking a fish.
5. Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.
6. No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scru- tinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.
7. At a village of La Mancha, whose name I do not wish to remember, there lived a little while ago one of those gentlemen who are wont to keep a lance in the rack, an old buckler, a lean horse and a swift greyhound.
8. Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow lovable.

Answers coming later.

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