Tuesday 31 May 2011

Nothing Compares...

Yesterday, I heard Nothing Compares 2U playing on the radio and I was reminded of how bloody fantastic the first line is.

I've mentioned before that I think first lines are overrated things, but they have a job; indeed they have a couple of jobs. There are two things that a first line should do. First: it should establish something important. The sky was blue and the grass was green is a bad first line because it could be prefixed to almost any story without adding anything (unless your hero is colour-blind).

The other thing that a first line should do is throw the reader off slightly. Only slightly. There's always a danger that a chap will settle down to appreciate your book, and books should not be appreciated, they should be experienced.

You don't want your reader to appreciate that your joke is funny, you want him to laugh. You don't want your reader to appreciate your plot-twists, you want him to be startled. This problem is horribly acute when the reader picks up the book for the first time, because of course he is probably going to use his judgement of your first line to decide whether to continue. So you need to, as it were, pull his seat of judgement out from under him.

But here's the paradox: if you do that too obviously, the reader is likely to say 'Oh! How wonderfully unexpected! He's pulled my seat of judgement out from under me in a very clever way.'

This is a failure. So you must be cunning. You need to be subtle. That's why Call me Ishmael is the best first line in history. On the surface, nothing has happened. The main character is called Ishmael. Onwards to the second sentence.

But he's not named in a normal way. The first line is not My name is Ishmael. It's Call me Ishmael. Most readers don't notice that the narrator of Moby Dick is anonymous. Instead, a sort of ad hoc deal is set up between narrator and reader that Ishmael is the name we shall use, but that for all we know he's really called Brian.

And the vital thing is that that ad hoc deal is set up just quickly enough and just subtly enough that the reader barely notices. He's on the second sentence, but somewhere at the back of his mind there's that nagging feeling that something is wrong.

The same thing goes with It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Right ho! On to the second sentence, barely wondering whether this is a statement of truth (It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the sun rises in the East) or of satire (It is a truth universally acknowledged, that if a girl doesn't have a Gucci handbag she might as well be dead). Is this the omniscient or sarcastic narrator? Does Jane believe this, or is she laughing at those who do?

Subtle. The reader barely notices, but they are that much less able to stand in dissociated judgement.

Which brings me around to the song by Prince, first recorded by The Family, and made famous by Sinead O'Connor. It's not on a level with Melville or Austen, but it's damn close.

It's been seven hours and fifteen days
Since you took your love away.

All Prince did was to reverse the usual order of weights and measures. Most people start with the largest - three pounds and fifty pence, eleven stone and six ounces, fifteen days and seven hours.

It's hardly a dramatic shift. Seven hours and fifteen days is quite comprehensible, you might not notice. But it's enough to tip you off balance so subtly that you don't even notice your fall. Moreover - and this is the beauty of it - it establishes the character. After the first two lines the rest of the song is barely necessary. It's somebody who split up with his girlfriend* more than a fortnight ago, but is still counting their separation in hours. That's why they're listed first.

That's all you need to know about the poor fellow: lovelorn enough that his measurements are reversed. And the real beauty is that the listener might never notice that all that information has been conveyed in the first seven words.

It's enough to make you forgive the 2U instead of To You.

Almost enough.

*Working from the original version.


  1. Inky M, bon jour and Bon Jovi.

    I've thought about the importance of lyrical nuance in songs before.

    The other day a song had, as its first word, "And". Together with what followed I thought it remarkable.

    Anyway, I consider this, hitherto, your best blog; certainly the most thought provoking.


  2. Hello,
    This is a great read. I was just thinking the other day how strange Prince's first line is - I think I settled with the assumption that it's just an easier rhyme than to switch up measures, but I think I prefer your take.
    I think the best start to a book's either Toni Morrison's "Paradise" which starts "They shoot the white girl first", or the first line on the slip added to the front page of one of the hardback Monty Python books I had when I was a kid which read "Erratum, this is the wrong book". That still makes me laugh.

  3. The good word is 'subception': http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/192498