Updated: Jan 7, 2022
Interested in hooking readers from the first sentence? Who isn’t? I asked people for their favourite opening lines to novels, then I analysed them. A good example is the opening sentence from George Orwell’s 1984 (this one came up often in responses to my question): “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” One thing that I discovered as I read through the opening sentences was this: they often involve broadly recognisable situations combined with specific elements that unsettle our expectations.
“It was a bright cold day in April,” sets the scene. This is an ordinary enough world — or so it seems. It’s not an alien planet. It’s not the world after some apocalyptic devastation. It’s somewhere north or south of the equator, going by the description of April weather. So we know that this is the world as we know it to be. No matter where we live, we can recognise the world in these terms.
But then the second phrase hits us: “and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Since only analogue clocks have hands that strike the hour (digital clocks do not), the meaning of this phrase disturbs our expectations of an ordinary world. This is a world in which time is measured differently from our own. Worse, there’s a feeling of the unhomely and the grotesque being activated here because of the excess of that number — thirteen exceeds twelve and in doing so goes beyond the boundaries of time as we know it. And then, there’s the meaning of the number thirteen itself. Culturally speaking, that is. Thirteen is an unlucky number — sometimes called “the devil’s number” (well, at least, the number 87 is so called in cricket because it’s thirteen runs off 100).
I found this pattern repeatedly in the samples offered up: Memorable opening sentences often involve broadly recognisable situations combined with specific elements that unsettle our expectations.
What's happening here?
What we're talking about here is establishing the setting or situation in generic terms, and then going in for the detail. That detail, when it unsettles expectations, must nonetheless be conceivable with respect to the established framework—in this instance, time. We make sense of the the second part of Orwell's opening sentence by comparing it to the first part.
Another example comes from Albert Camus', The Outsider. Earlier translations had the first sentence as, "Mother died today" or "Maman died today." In French, "maman" is equivalent to mom, mum, or mommy. Culturally, "Mum died today," comes somewhere between despondence and carelessness, depending on how it is interpreted. I suspect that Camus was aiming for something closer to "Mommy died today"--an expression capturing the dazed kind of sadness that can grip us when we lose a loved one. Though, in all likelihood, he meant to convey this without the childishness implied by the English word. (See this article in The New Yorker for a more detailed explanation.)
Whatever the author intended, the effect of the original translation is that the ordinariness of the category of person known as "mother" is complicated by the immediate reference to her demise. So the broad identity category of motherhood, is rendered specific in two ways:
it becomes clear that the word refers, not to all mothers, but to the speaker's mother; and,
an unhomely and discordant quality is introduced to the concept of "mother" by the reference to her death.
Why unhomely? Here we have a dead mother. Mothers are supposed to be nurturing, not dead. They are life-givers. Plus, in the middle of the twentieth century, our cultural perspectives were very much framed around notions of Freudian slips and Oedipal complexes. So, a dead mother becomes a bit of an alarm bell. It throws up questions for the reader: How do I feel about my mother? Do I secretly wish her dead? These are unhomely thoughts because they contradict the idea of a mother being a nurturer — a giver and sustainer of life.
Why discordant? It's the speaker's first words to us, the readers. It's like meeting someone for the first time and what do they do? They don't say, "Hello, pleased to meet you." Instead, they open their mouth and say, "Mum died today." I mean, what do you say to that?
So the trick is to start with a simple, easily recognised framework, context, or concept, and then upend it with the specificities of your narrative. Pull the rug, ever so gently, from beneath your reader's smug anticipation of an ordinary, regular kind of world, experience, meaning, and surprise them with the unusual nature of what they are about to encounter in the pages of your book.