Monday, April 22, 2013

7 Finding the Lamp-Post by David Whitley

First lines are like the lamp-post. Not a lamp-post, the lamp-post, the most important lamp-post in the whole of literature. The one which first greets Lucy Pevensie as she pushes her way through a pile of winter coats, and into Narnia.

It’s such a famous scene to us now, that pivotal moment in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I remember, as a child, knowing that it was coming, probably from reading the back of the book. But take a moment to consider what it must have been like for Lucy. However brave she is, however much the snowy landscape beyond the wardrobe thrills her, it is still a strange, alien place. So to find an ordinary London lamp-post in the middle of it, is at once mysterious, and surprisingly reassuring.

Now, look at this line:

It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Yes, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is very far from Narnia (although the two books were published only a little over a year apart). But see what he did. A crisp description of a regular English spring day, with an unsettling sting in the tail. Even though nothing terrible has happened yet, the striking of thirteen o’clock not only intrigues us, it foreshadows that this won’t be a happy story. An unlucky number already hangs over the proceedings.

The key is this – these scenes are both strange and familiar. Both odd and comforting. They present us with something intriguing, but also give us a clear path into the story. If Lucy had entered the wardrobe to find herself trapped in a vast cavern teeming with monsters, it would have been exciting, but too confusing for an opening moment – we would barely have a chance to begin the story, we’d be trying to assimilate all this new information. By contrast, if she had found a deserted forest, it would have seemed almost safe – as though she had just stepped out for a walk. That lamp-post shines out, mysterious yet solid, and gives us an image that we’ll never forget.

A great opening needs both of these elements. Sometimes, they can be pushed together very obviously, jarring for comic effect, like the brilliant first line of Terry Pratchett’s Reaper Man:

The Morris Dance is common to all inhabited worlds in the multiverse.

Only Pratchett could have made English country dancing seem exciting and bizarre! But sometimes a truly inspired opening provides the contrast more subtly, like Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

At first, this looks as safe and straightforward as a Victorian Novel could be – a first-person narrative about his own life, absolutely standard for the time. And yet when I read this, I was so taken with the idea of not being the hero of your own life, of feeling disconnected from your own story, that I had to read on.

So, with all this in mind, I sat down to write the first line of the first book of my Agora trilogy, The Midnight Charter. The novel begins with a boy called Mark being rescued from a plague-ravaged slum, and brought to the tower home of the doctor who cures him, where he meets Lily, a servant-girl.

I had several tries!

First, I started with:

Some believed that the plague came down from the skies, as punishment from whichever higher powers they cared to name. Some saw it as a mist that bubbled up from the streets and mixed with the stench and smoke. Some thought to shake a victim’s hand was death, some to meet their gaze. But for most, they did not think at all. They died.

It was dramatic, yes, but it wasn’t focused correctly. This novel isn’t about the plague itself, and by giving it so much attention in the opening lines, I was misdirecting the reader. Plus the introduction of one of my principle characters, Mark, got lost.

So, then I tried a complete change, and began not on the streets, but in the tower:

There was a new sound in the tower today.

Lily knew the tower well. Knew how it creaked in summer as its beams dried, and how the winter winds whispered through the cracks in the stonework…

So the new sound drew her. It sounded like crying.

And that nearly was the opening I used, but I felt it suffered from the opposite problem. It was a little too comfortable. Lily – the book’s other main character – lives in the tower. But the readers are as new to this place as Mark, (who is of course the crying stranger, due to meet Lily in a couple of paragraphs’ time).

Wouldn’t it be far more striking if the point of view was Mark’s?

I started to consider Mark’s feelings; his shock, his confusion at being plucked from the world he knew, whilst delirious with fever, and waking up in a totally strange environment. I needed a line which, I hoped, would be immediately striking and powerful, but have enough simplicity not to be overwhelming.

And the line I chose, in the end?

Being dead was colder than Mark had expected.

I had found my lamp-post. Now all I had to do was walk out into the snowy forest beyond.

About the Author

David Whitley was born in 1984 and graduated from the University of Oxford with a Double First in English literature and a passion for writing children’s fiction. At age 17 his first children’s novel was short-listed for the Kathleen Fidler Award, and at 20 he won the Cheshire Prize for Literature for a children’s short story, the youngest writer ever to win this prestigious award. He lives in the ancient city of Chester, England.

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About the Book

In The Canticle of Whispers, the final volume of the Agora trilogy, Mark and Lily lead the revolution to unseat the powerful elite while confronting the dark and twisted nature of their destinies.

Over the course of their travels, Mark and Lily have seen the dark side of capitalist society and the terrifying side of utopian community. Now they journey deep underground to a world populated by people terrified of physical touch but capable of creating mesmerizing song. Here they discover the seat of Agora's power and try to right the wrongs of their forefathers--but can they succeed without sacrificing themselves? In this gripping conclusion to a trilogy that is at once timely and prophetic, David Whitley pushes his characters and his world to the brink in order to find redemption from the past.

Buy The Canticle of Whispers on Amazon
Find The Canticle of Whispers on Goodreads


  1. Ah Narnia my first love. Great post.

  2. The Narnia books remain among my all time favorites, and that scene with the lamppost is so vivid. I loved the settings in those books, but it was the characters that did it for me. I wanted Lucy to be my best friend. In a way, as with all great books, she is my friend, reliably there for me each time I pick the books up again.

    You bring up excellent points, David! The "start with action" advice tossed around so often these days is easily confused. The great books do start with the characters doing something -- they must, but they don't begin with explosions or anything terrifyingly unfamiliar. We need time to get to know the characters so that we can follow them into danger.

    Thank you so much for the great post and for giving us the honor of having you on the blog!



  3. Great post! Just found your blog and will be back to read more.


  4. That's a great line/lampost! I also love Bradbury's It was a pleasure to burn. Sets up that book so well and it's also clear and concise. Nice!

  5. Your first line certainly provokes that lamp post moment.

  6. Forget about light bulb moments, now I'll always think lamp post moment.

  7. Great beginning and post. Still working on my beginning after many tries.


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