Great Opening Lines
The Word of the Day prompt this morning was DESPERATE, so let’s take a look at a few desperate situations main characters have come face-to-face with in some popular novels.
I read an article not long ago saying how important it is for writers to start off with an enticing hook, preferably in the first paragraph. Best-selling author and writing instructor Jerry Jenkins gives wannabe novelists this advice: “Plunge your character in terrible trouble as soon as possible, definitely in the first chapter and preferably on the first page.”
If you can do this well, your readers will start rooting for your hero or heroine right off the bat.
Lewis Carroll wasted no time in his classic, Alice in Wonderland. The story opens with a sleepy, bored Alice, noticing, then following, a talking rabbit. By the fifth paragraph she’s plunging down the rabbit hole into another world.
Jane Austin succeeds admirably, opening Pride & Prejudice with an unknown young man about to enter a tiger’s den of local mothers desperate to gain a rich son-in-law. You know his goose is cooked when you read the first lines.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
In the first lines of Agnes Sligh Turnbull’s 1948 classic, The Bishop’s Mantle, we get the picture of another desperate soul:
The young man in the taxi leaned forward. “Can you go faster?” he said to the driver. “It’s a matter of life and death.”
The reason for his urgency is soon clear, as we see him arrive at his destination and softly enter the bedroom of his dying grandfather.
Dan Walsh starts out his terrific historical novel, The Deepest Waters — © 2011 — with the main characters in desperate straits indeed, about to be plunged into the Atlantic:
Yesterday, when it had become a certainty their ship would sink, Laura and John Foster held hands, as they had on their wedding day three weeks ago, and made a vow: when that moment finally came, they would leap into the sea together and slip beneath the waves….
But that’s not what happened.
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, CS Lewis introduced his character in a delightfully terse, yet revealing way, guaranteed to spark the reader’s curiosity about this belligerent boy and the troubles that await him:
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it. His parents called him Eustace Clarence and masters called him Scrubb. I can’t tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none.
I don’t think anyone can beat Canada’s best loved humorist, Stephen Leacock, though, when it comes to painting scenes of desperation and dismay in the opening lines of his short stories. Here are a few from A Treasury of Stephen Leacock, ©1999 by Key Porter Books:
My Financial Career
When I go into a bank I get rattled. The clerks rattle me; the wickets rattle me; the sight of the money rattles me; everything rattles me.
Lord Oxhead’s Secret
It was finished. Ruin had come. Lord Oxford sat gazing fixedly at the library fire.
A Christmas Letter
Allow me very gratefully but firmly to refuse your kind invitation. You doubtless mean well; but your ideas are unhappily mistaken.
How to Avoid Getting Married
Some year ago, when I was the Editor of a correspondence column, I used to receive heart-broken letters from young men asking for advice and sympathy. They found themselves the object of marked attentions from girls which they scarcely knew how to deal with.
Too bad he wasn’t around to give advice to the single young man Jane Austin was about to plunge into terrible trouble in my first example. Oh, well. He came out okay in the end.