It is hard to understand nothing, but the multiverse is full of it. Nothing travels everywhere, always ahead of something, and in the great cloud of unknowing nothing yearns to be something, to break out, to move, to feel, to change, to dance and to experience – in short, to be something.
The late Terry Pratchett’s Raising Steam starts in a characteristically Pratchett way. A philosophical concept that is told with such grace and command of language and cadence that you read it and feel like you’ve been imparted with some great wisdom, when – in fact – you have been told very little at all.
It’s hard not to recognise Pratchett’s whimsical style in the lines of the first paragraph – the comical song of his voice is as obvious here as it is in any of his other stories…
As an opening line it is utterly engaging and yet – beneath the weaving nature of the writing style – Pratchett has offered the key theme for Raising Steam in his very first paragraph.
Unlike my first few examples, the reader isn’t struck by a series of questions that wills them on.
Instead, the reader finds themselves utterly engaged because, despite any introduction of character or locale, they feel as though they have just learnt something that is of vital importance to the whole story…
And they have.
A comical look at the introduction of new technology through the eyes of the Discworld universe, Raising Steam follows the story of a young inventor and his backers as they attempt to bring the first train service to Ankh-Morpork and the surrounding land. And yet, as the pioneers try to surge forward with their ideas, a more religious sect of Dwarf fundamentalists try to sabotage the railway and – fearing the technological advancement it presents – eventually try to overthrow a Dwarf King.
The story is woven together by the themes of technological advancement and the nature of ideas – and we can see that straight away in the opening lines. By characterising an idea, Pratchett explores the concept of the struggle for ideas to come to fruition and be accepted before ever introducing any of the characters of the piece. And for that reason, this opening line is truly fantastic.
It doesn’t dive headlong into the story, but it does spark interest in the reader by presenting the core theme of the story in the very first instance. A master stroke of opening line writing.
Now it’s over to you.
What do you make of this opening? Do you want to read on? Have you read Raising Steam and did this opening prepare you for what was to come in the main novel? Or was it just a bit too whimsical for your taste?
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