Tag Archives: Rebecca

A Good Opening Line Can Make all the Difference

Last week I opened a book and the first line was so thoroughly uninspiring that I gave a small incredulous yell and immediately closed it, forever. That line was, ‘It was Thursday and I was making soup.’ Congratulations, author who shall remain nameless, with those eight unbelievably dull short words you have put me off what may well be an excellent story. I realise this may just be my opinion, but in a ranking of days and foods, I’m pretty sure ‘Thursdays’ and ‘soup’ are the dullest. There is in fact a competition for the worst opening lines that has some fantastic examples of awfulness; a winner used the imaginatively terrible ‘He swaggered into the room with a certain Wikipedic insouciance‘.

1984The opening line of any piece of writing really matters. It is your first impression and it needs to be good. What do you want people to know about your book? A lot can be established in one line. For example, 1984 begins: ‘It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ George Orwell instantly demonstrates that we are in an alternate future where things are fundamentally reordered.

Establishing theme is a common factor in many of the most famous opening lines. Sweeping statements in the author’s voice are often best remembered: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ With parallel phrasing and a lovely contrast, Charles Dickens immediately introduces social dichotomy as a central subject of A Tale of Two Cities.  A universal declaration is also used by Tolstoy to begin Anna Karenina: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ The reader infers that what follows will be a personal drama with much pain and unhappiness.

Imperatives work well to start things off; they draw the reader directly into the action. Consider this from Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy: ‘“You will marry the boy I choose,” said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.’ The mother’s attempt to find her daughter a suitable boy to marry is the core of the story. The conflict over this is also confirmed by the use of the adverb. Using dialogue to begin can pull the reader straight into the characters’ relationships. First person can have the same impact: ‘Call me Ishmael’ works as a simple, iconic imperative in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

Beginning at the end is a device often employed. Daphne du Maurier’s rebeccaRebecca begins: ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ Using a dream perfectly expresses the significance of this place; the evenness of the syllables gives it a rhythm. We are also told that the book will be an open and deeply personal recollection.  

A real favourite is from Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: ‘The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created. This made a lot of people very angry and has widely been regarded as a bad move.’ This always gives me a laugh. The first line should prompt an immediate reaction from the reader, whether it’s amusement, interest, excitement, recognition or empathy. Don’t just start to tell the story; tell the reader something about the story.  

What do you think makes a good opening line? What’s your favourite? I’d love to know! Comment below and please do like and share! 

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My Favourite Spooky Novels for Halloween

Here are my favourite novels that feel Halloween-appropriate. They may not all contain the classic supernatural monsters that provide the inspiration for the creepiest costumes. However to me, horror is much more than monsters: it is an oppressive atmosphere; chilling imagery; a twisting, startling plot; and good dose of foggy Victorian nights where villains lurk down dank alleys and in nervous imaginations.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ This famous first line transports the reader with the nameless narrator back into a tale of tension and drama. It may not be a literal ghost story, but the protagonist is psychologically haunted by her new husband’s first wife, the eponymous Rebecca. The creepy housekeeper is devoted to her dead mistress and bullies the new Mrs de Winter into feeling that she will never be good enough. She begins to doubt herself and her husband’s love. If you haven’t read it, do, if only for the dramatic twists. It’s about power and fear. The imagery is taken directly from the horror genre:  ‘The road to Manderley lay ahead. There was no moon. The sky above our heads was inky black. But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all. It was shot with crimson, like a splash of blood. And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.’

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde Teaching the perils of vanity, this beautifully written allegorical triumph is the perfect horror story. It has everything: crime, murder, sex, drugs and some startlingly gruesome surprises. Dorian Gray is young and beautiful. He falls in with a hedonistic crowd and has his portrait painted by Basil Hallward. He realises the transience of good looks and declares that he would sell his soul if the portrait would age instead of him. This Faustian pact becomes more real than he could have imagined as his sins are drawn on the picture, making it horrifically disfigured. This is Oscar Wilde’s only novel and caused moral outrage when it was published: usually the sign of an interesting book!  

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley It’s a Gothic horror classic. The original mad scientist, Victor Frankenstein brings forth new life in his lab, but is appalled by the monster he has created. Eight feet tall with translucent skin and yellow eyes, it craves human contact, yet terrifies everyone it meets.  This self-aware creature is one of the most fascinating characters in literature and is far more articulate in the text than it is allowed to be in most green-faced film adaptations: “I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.” With a frame narrative, this novel is structurally intelligent as well as impressively dark and complex.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte So the ghost story element has rather had power taken out of it by that Kate Bush song, but that aside, the novel remains atmospheric, deeply creepy (implied nechrophilia) and involves some of the best pathetic fallacy I’ve ever seen. The central piece of the book is the all-consuming, destructive monomania that Cathy and Heathcliff feel for each other. In my favourite passage from the book, Heathcliff says: ‘Why did you betray your own heart, Cathy? I have not one word of comfort. You deserve this. You have killed yourself. Yes, you may kiss me, and cry; and wring out my kisses and tears: they’ll blight you—they’ll damn you… Because misery and degradation, and death, and nothing that God or Satan could inflict would have parted us, you, of your own will, did it. I have not broken your heart—you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine… Do I want to live? What kind of living will it be when you—oh, God! would you like to live with your soul in the grave?’ The themes of heaven and hell, of souls and damnation pervade each generation’s stories.

What would you add to this list?

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