Reading

The First Line Test

I didn’t consciously develop the first line test. At some point, I just noticed my behaviour when I go into the fiction section of a bookstore: I pick up a novel, open it to the first page, read the first line, and then, if I don’t find what I‘m looking for, I put it back on the shelf and move on. What am I looking for? Often, I don’t know. But I do know what I don’t like. I especially dislike novels that begin with the birth of the central character. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it aesthetically or otherwise; as a reader, however, I just don’t like it. (It usually means that childhood will follow and all will be drearily chronological.) That said, I was in a book group for 5 years and read a great number of books that I wouldn’t otherwise have read. It was wonderful to discover that books with flawed openings, even flawed first sections, held riches for me. There are even exceptions to the “don’t begin with birth” rule. My years in the book group taught me that books don’t have to be perfect for me to appreciate them and learn from them. Nevertheless, the first line test persists, and when a book soars over that hurdle, my excitement is palpable. I was almost breathless with joy when I recently read the opening sentences to The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen.

That morning’s ice, no more than a brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments. These tapped together or, parting, left channels of dark water, down which swans in slow indignation swam.

Why do I find those lines so beautiful? So astonishing? Ah, that is a subject for another post.

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3 thoughts on “The First Line Test

  1. I do this too! I just blogged about the First Line Test, and WordPress gave me this as a possibly “related” post. Love it 🙂 Is this a real thing, or did we just both call it the obvious thing?

    • Hi Jaclyn–it is a real thing in the sense that we both do it and I’m sure lots of other people do it too! But yes, I just called it the obvious thing. I wish I could find the quotation, but I once read that Gabriel Garcia Marquez begins writing a novel with the first line and doesn’t write any more of it until the first line is perfect. (If anyone has this quotation, please let me know!)

      I read your post on the first line test and enjoyed it. I have seen those new books with the original covers and I think they’re pretty cool.

  2. I have huge admiration for lovely first lines, not least because I find them hard to write! I laughed about your dislike of beginning with the birth of the protagonist – I know just what you mean! But the Bowen is gorgeous – just a promise of evocative, sensual, linguistic riches.

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