It is a truth universally acknowledged that writing the first sentence of a novel can be the hardest part. For centuries, writers great and not so great have wrestled with how to simultaneously best despoil that virgin page, grab the reader and set up the themes of the story to come, all in one single elegant sentence.
For example, William Shakespeare’s novels tend to begin with people talking – he doesn’t go in for description much apart from an awful lot of exiting and entering. But he does set up the themes well. Here’s the beginning of King Lear:
“Kent: This novel is about old age, madness and tragic irony. Look! Here comes an actor.”
It’s short, pithy and to the point – the reader knows exactly where he is and what the novel is going to be about. Charles Dickens, on the other hand, frequently struggled with the opening of his novels and you can see this most in his early books, like The Pickwick Papers, which begins:
“I don’t know really know how to start this story. Crumbs. Will anyone read it? Will anyone remember me after my death? Will they turn any of my books into films? Will there be a museum with Simon Callow doing the audio guide?”
(The Pickwick Papers)
It’s not entirely successful, and to the modern reader, even appears strangely anachronistic. So Dickens adopted what is known by writers as a “distraction technique”, where he began all of his subsequent novels with the popular Victorian interjection “Boing!”. The theory is that if you know you are going to begin every novel with the same word, you don’t try so hard for the next and more interesting sentence – which then serves as the “real” first sentence for the reader. It works surprisingly well. Here’s the opening to Tale of Two Cities (1859):
“BOING! It was the best of times, it was the worst of times etc*”
(*This sentence actually goes on a bit, so I haven’t quoted the whole thing)
Or Great Expectations (1861):
“BOING! It was the best of times, it was the worst of times – oh whoops, I done that one already.”
However, once the 20th century began, people other than Shakespeare and Dickens were allowed to write novels, including women – and things really kicked off. There were lots of different people writing all sorts of novels and readers didn’t know which way to turn, as the literary free market told hold of the modern imagination.
Ernest Hemingway began writing novels in Paris, and unlike Shakespeare and Dickens, he didn’t make stuff up using fancy long old fashioned words, he just told it how it was.
“I was drunk.”
(In Our Time, 1925)
Very quickly, the modern American voice caught on, and authors realised that novels could be immediate and as modern as the radio or the movies. Here’s Hemingway’s good friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“I was also drunk.”
(Tender is the Night, 1934)
Pretty soon, everyone wanted in on the act, especially the Irish. And it was an Irishman, James Joyce, who would take the opening of a novel to a whole new level of modernism, with the famous first sentence of the book that everyone would remember him for, because they could never finish it:
“all over the shop and off my face at last the /whoops i just fell over again”
(Finnegan’s Wake, 1939)
But that didn’t mean writers could always just say exactly how they felt. Here’s the original (unpublished) opening line of Maurice by EM Forster:
“I want to say to all my family and friends, that this is a very important moment in my life, standing here in front of you with my loving partner Stefan, and our dogs Mimi and Collette finally able to be who I am – so pick up your cocktails, take it away Barbra, and let’s samba!”
(Maurice, unpublished MS, 1913)
And in fact, owing to government censors, this is how the published book actually read.
“Edward tied his tie so tight he nearly strangled himself, put on a heavy smelly woollen waistcoat, follwed by at least six equally smelly overcoats and finally a special Gargoyle face mask so no-one would ever look at him again because he hated himself so much.”
Such censorship is now thankfully long behind us, and we happily read books about dinosaurs killing each other (men) or fairies fancying each other (women). But popular though those books are, modern writers – with all their computers, websites and ever rising property prices at their disposal – still struggle to come up with that perfect opening sentence. Which is where the International Book Council comes in.
The International Book Council had been formed after the Hitler and Stalin farrago to make sure that kind of hoopla over starting a novel never happened again. All the countries in the IBC appointed their most famous writer to represent them, and they decided who was allowed to write books, what they could write them about, and how many quotes they could make up to put on the back cover.
But it wasn’t very effective and Russia and China tended just to steam right ahead and write novels about any old thing – coal, steel, gas – you name it, they wrote a love story about it. Finally, all the writers in the world came to this council and they basically said “Look, there’s just too many different ways to begin a novel, and we can never agree, so can you the International Book Council do something about it?”
And, much to everyone’s surprise, the International Book Council said “Yes.” What they decided, after a very long meeting, was to put it to the vote. Every country could vote for the best sentence to begin a novel with, and thereafter, every novel ever written in that country would have to begin with that exact sentence.
So the British writers went home and went straight to BBC. Together they made a television programme to find the UK’s best opening sentence of a novel. Presented by Simon Cowell and A.S. Byatt, “You’ve Got The Best Opening Sentence to a Novel Factor” was a huge hit, with entries not just from professional writers but some very unprofessional ones too.
In the end, it came down to a shortlist of three, and a nail-biting telephone/internet vote. In third place was:
“Kenneth, this gadget and outdoor leisure wear catalogue isn’t going to write itself you know,” repeated my colleague in the marketing department.”
Some people felt this entry had been cheated of the winning spot, but hey folks, that’s democracy. It might have been a bit limiting. In second place was this:
“The preceding e-mail message (including any attachments) contains information that may be confidential, may be protected by the attorney-client or other applicable privileges, or may constitute non-public information.”
In the end this entry was disqualified, because an investigative journalist from The Sun exposed the fact that the writer who submitted that entry hadn’t actually made it up themselves, and everyone was frankly relieved because a) it showed that not only were tabloid journalists still able to expose such heinous immoral wrongdoing, and b) it wasn’t that good anyway. So in the end, with fanfares and whistles blowing, and a ticker tape parade of marines on a bus all the way down the Mall, the UK’s Official Best Opening Sentence to a Novel was revealed as:
“I was standing outside the kebab shop.”
A.S. Byatt said “I am delighted that all my novels will now begin with this perfectly formed sentence resonant with infinite potential; I feel it is destined to become as British a phrase as ‘fish and chips’ or ‘Nathan, can you put your iPhone away please, we’re eating lunch now.’” And for once, Katie Price agreed with her.
Which is why if you are in Britain, and currently writing a novel, the Government has at least made one part of it easy for you. There is only one way you are legally allowed to begin your novel. So get out your notepad, write down “I was standing outside the kebab shop” and hey presto- only another 79, 994 words to go! Good luck.