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What are the best first lines in fiction?
Normally we use Comparative Judgement to assess children's writing. What about published novels?
At No More Marking, we carry out lots of assessments of children’s writing. But what about assessing published novels?
This week, we set a fun end-of-term Comparative Judgement task - what is the best first line in fiction?
We selected 80 first lines in total and opened the judging to anyone who would like to judge. In total, 175 people signed up to do some judging, and they completed 7347 decisions. That means that on average, there were 90 decisions per first line - which in turn means that every first line was seen approximately 180 times (that’s because each judgement involves 2 first lines).
Here is what a judgement looked like.
You can see that we didn’t include the title of the novel in the judgement. Of course, with some of the more famous ones everyone will know the novel, but as far as possible we wanted people to concentrate on the actual first line.
The overall reliability of all the judging was 0.93, which is pretty good and shows good agreement between the judges. (This metric runs from 0 - 1, and 1 would mean there had been perfect agreement!)
So what were the results?
The best first line in fiction
Here are the titles of the novels with the top 10 first lines. Click on the link to see the actual first line. I’ve also given the scaled score in brackets.
Nineteen Eighty-Four - (scaled score 100)
The Go-Between - (88)
City of Glass - (75)
The Stranger - (75)
The Bell Jar - (74)
Night Watch - (73)
Slaughterhouse-Five - (69)
Anna Karenina - (68)
Pride and Prejudice - (67)
Here are the actual first lines from the top three.
You can see that as well as the rank order, I’ve given the scaled score. People often think that Comparative Judgement is just a ranking tool, but it is so much more than that! You can see from the scaled score that Comparative Judgement actually gives you a sense of how much people preferred each first line. In this case, 1984 was quite decisively ahead of the next novel. But the novels from 3-7 were all quite closely clustered - there wasn’t much to pick between them.
So what makes a great first line?
The first line from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is a witticism. Most of the rest of the first lines create some kind of intrigue or atmosphere. They leave you with a question or a mystery that you want to find out more about.
What about the language? For this, it’s interesting to turn to some advice given by famous novelists, and some statistical analysis. The novelist Stephen King recommends that you should not use -ly words. For example, instead of saying ‘he ran quickly’, you should say ‘he sprinted.’ Statistical analysis bears him out - it seems that published authors do use -ly adverbs less than amateur writers. It’s also interesting to consider this advice in the light of the prominence given to fronted adverbials in various parts of England’s national curriculum.
Forgettably, he crept through the howling rain
The other advice from many stylists is to avoid weather descriptions in the first line. It’s often said that the worst first line in literature is Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford: it was a dark and stormy night.
Our winner actually does mention weather - but the subsequent mention of the clock striking thirteen deliberately subverts the humdrum opening.
If you’d like to have a go at judging this task yourself, you can still do so here. If you’d like to find out more about how Comparative Judgement works as a method of judging students’ writing, sign up for one of our webinars here.
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