Thursday, August 11, 2011

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.


  1. The only book out of these that I've read is The Giver, but I love your examples!

    I agree. It's easier to get a sense of the narrator than it is the actual character through third person.

  2. Thanks, Golden Eagle! I tend to prefer a close narrative distance, which may be why I prefer 1st person POV. But it's possible to do 3rd person with a very short narrative distance; Neal Shusterman's UNWIND (not shown here, because I included it last time around) is very good at that, for example, even though he follows multiple characters.

    3rd person does have the advantage of being able to zoom way out if the writer wants; you can't really do that in 1st person.