Great First Lines: The Answers, Part I

Congratulations to Heidi, who guessed First Line #3 of my Great First Lines Challenge  a couple of weeks ago, and Liz, who guessed #3 and #5! Sorry for the delay in posting the answers—I wanted to give more people a chance to guess, if they were so inclined. 

Here are the answers to First Lines #1 through 5:

1. Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. --The Thirteen Clocks, by James Thurber.

  • Perfectly sets up the mood of the book, which is fairy-tale-esque (without being twee), gothic, and just a tiny bit arch. That word “aggressive” is the tip-off that we’re in the hands of a master.

2. Walking back to camp through the swamp, Sam wondered whether to tell his father what he had seen. --The Trumpet of the Swan, by E.B. White .

  • This isn’t one of the showier first lines out there—nothing dramatic happens, just a kid walking back from a swamp. But in a move that’s typical of EB White’s understated brilliance, it sets up all kinds of questions in the reader’s mind, like: what on earth did Sam see in that swamp? And why wouldn’t he want to tell his father? It’s a testament to White’s skill at bringing us into Sam’s world that when the answer—a Trumpeter Swan’s nest—is revealed, it doesn’t feel anticlimactic at all.

3. When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home. --The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton.

  • Atmospheric, succinct, character-setting. It really is hard to believe Hinton was only sixteen when she wrote this..

4. Linderwall was a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable. --Dealing with Dragons, by Patricia Wrede.

  • Like The Thirteen Clocks, Dealing With Dragons draws on familiar fairy-tale fare: a kingdom, a princess, a dragon. But the slightly wonky opening (“the number five was fashionable”??) is a big hint that the usual fairy-tale plot is about to be set spinning crazily across the room.

5. Mrs. Jane Tabby could not explain why all four of her children had wings. --Catwings, by Ursula LeGuin

  • I can’t actually think of anything clever or illuminating to say about this first line. It seems to me to be utterly complete in itself, which is, I guess, enough of a testament.

I'll save the answers to first lines #6 through 10 for my next post in a day or two. If anyone wants to try to guess them, the original post is here.

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