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April 2017

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More opening lines (third person this time)

The last time I did a post analyzing opening lines, one commenter noticed that my examples ran heavily to first-person stories. This is probably because my tastes as a reader run heavily to first person. But I do have some third-person books hanging out on my shelves, and in response to a special request, here are third-person opening lines:

Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.
--James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain
What I like about "everyone had always said" is that it sets us up for a "but ..." In other words, it signals conflict.

After all, it was the seventies, so Allen and Betty thought nothing of leaving their younger daughter, Jamie, home alone for three nights while they went camping in Death Valley.
--Jessica Anya Blau, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties
We're instantly tipped off that this is the story of a permissive family, set in the 1970s, and viewed through the filter of a much later time. There's a hint of trouble here already: young girl home alone for three nights! (Notice that: not days, but nights--which are, presumably, more dangerous.)

When the windshield was closed it became so filmed with rain that Claire fancied she was piloting a drowned car in dim spaces under the sea.
--Sinclair Lewis, Free Air
This is the story of a young woman driving her father across country--around the time of World War I, when there was no interstate highway system, most roads were mud, and cars were not the button-operated, computerized machines they are now. The first line plunks us right down in the car next to Claire, and its reference to undersea piloting gives us a whiff of adventure.

It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old.
--Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding
A classic, "this is where everything changed, and this is where the change started" opening.

In the few days between arrival at Harvard Law School and the first classes, there are rumors.
--John Jay Osborn, Jr., The Paper Chase
Right away, we know where we are. The very name "Harvard Law School" is weighty, and now we're about to hear the rumors that arise from, and feed, the students' nervousness.

Caldwell turned and as he turned his ankle received an arrow.
--John Updike, The Centaur
Boom, here's a problem in line one: this guy has just been shot with an arrow. Wait--an arrow? What century is this? As it turns out, the story takes place simultaneously in 1947 Pennsylvania and somewhere in the world of Greek mythology, and the wounding of a public-school teacher with an arrow provides a flavor of both worlds at once.

It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.
--Lois Lowry, The Giver
There's nothing like fear to draw a reader in. Knowing that Jonas is scared arouses our sympathy and our curiosity at the same time.

One summer two boys and a girl went to a foster home to live together.
--Betsy Byars, The Pinballs
A basic stage-setting beginning. There's no doubt what this story is about, or who the main characters are.

Each type of substitute teacher had its own special weakness, and Jacob Wonderbar knew every possible trick to distract them.
--Nathan Bransford, Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow
Many of my examples are from older books, so I decided to pull out the most recently-published third-person book I have in the house. This opening tells us who the main character is, and it sets the tone of mischief right away. We know that this character is going to do things, to take action.

It can take us a little longer to get to know our main character in a third-person opening, because the first line introduces us to the narrator's voice rather than the character's voice. Yet the narrative distance is pretty close in Free Air, Jacob Wonderbar, and The Giver: we're already getting a sense of the characters. In many of the other openings, we've started with the camera zoomed out, and we may get to know more about the setting first. But those are options in third person that don't really exist in first person, where the narrative distance is almost inevitably tight.


Some of these work for me: The Summer..., The Paper Chase, The Centaur, The Giver, Jacob Wonderbar.... But many of the others don't.

The opening line of The Giver was very similar in flavour to my novel's original opening line...and I was advised to change it because I was telling instead of showing. I changed the opening, putting action and dialogue up front, and soon after found my agent.
There have been changes in narrative style over time, which is one reason I wanted to make sure to get a couple of very recent examples in there. But there is also a "Once upon a time" style that I think of as timeless, though it can be overdone.

Then, of course, there is the matter of personal taste. I too like some of these lines more than others, although I find it interesting to see how many different possibilities there are for starting a story!
When I write fantasy, it's always in third person multiple. When I write YA, it's always first person. I don't know why this is so, it just is.

Nice breakdown. I never actually thought about this before.
I always learn something myself by doing these exercises!
Thanks for all the examples. I think writing has come a long way and the only one of these that hooked me was Bransford's. The others, to me, are examples of enigmatic, 'telling' hooks that offer high-concept (and rather dated) premises. I like concrete hooks and am much more impressed by the legions of unpubbed writers who enter contests like Miss Snark's First Victim. Their first lines are intriguing, punchy, and vivid--they are true hooks. (But I'm a fan of genre, not literary.)
I think styles have changed, and novel openings used to emphasize setting over character much more than they do now.
I don't think the first line necessarily has to do everything: there are first and second lines that work together in a one-two punch, and there are novels where a strong opening idea is developed over a paragraph.
But I do agree that over time, a preference has evolved for jumping into the action sooner.
If these entries were arranged in reverse order of pub date, it would be:
Bransford (2011)
Blau (2008)
Lowry (1993)
Byars (1977)
Osborn (1971)
Updike (1962)
Baldwin (1952)
McCullers (1946)
Lewis (1919)

Great post, Jennifer, and a very nice range of opening lines. You're right, the one-two punch delivered by the second or third line is important too, and in fact, when I pick up a book to try and decide whether to buy it, I always read the first paragraph - not just the first line.

But third person really has two levels: the distant, narrative one (close to the author's voice, a little like a voice overlay in a movie) and the closer, more "intimate" one, as if one were into the character's head (not quite, of course, otherwise it would be first person!).

That closer, more intimate third person mode usually reflects the protag's character and uses a "voice" in keeping with the character's personality. I think Nathan Bransford is a good example of the intimate third person, while the other, less recent writers tend to use the distant/narrative third person.

Of course, that's just my opinion, I'd love to hear yours - whether you feel that there are indeed two types of third person style.
Thanks! I view it as a spectrum. Some writing teachers do divide 3rd person into "omniscient" and "limited," but I think there are shades of gray in there, too. For example, there are omniscient narratives that sometimes zoom in on a particular character's thoughts, and practically take on the character's voice at those times.

I also have found that some books adopt a narrator's voice that is distinct from that of any of the characters, even though the narrator is not really a character, while others have the narrative voice hew closely to that of the main character (the latter is usually accompanied by a very close narrative distance).