First Lines: Atonement -Ian McEwan

The play – for which Briony had designed the posters, programmes and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crêpe paper – was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss breakfast and a lunch.

Ian McEwan’s Atonement is well-crafted (if not slightly clichéd) novel, which essentially follows the story of a girl called Briony who witnesses something strange between her sister and a young man called Robbie as a child and lets her imagination get the better of her. Briony – who later becomes a novelist – ends up accusing Robbie of a horrendous crime that he didn’t commit and spends the rest of the novel trying to atone for her sins.

Whilst the opening line doesn’t convey the entire theme of the story in the opening line, the reader is treated to a huge amount of information about our main character. Whilst it doesn’t reveal anything of the nature of what Briony is trying to atone for, this first line sets up the rest of the story so brilliantly that the writer could almost have launched straight into the action afterwards.

Straight away, we learn something of Briony’s imagination. She has written a play but – more than that – she has also created the right atmosphere for the play to be performed in. This sets up the story perfectly for the lie that Briony is going to tell later on. She won’t just tell the lie, she will convince herself of its validity by creating an atmosphere in which there can be no doubt that Robbie is the guilty culprit.

Furthermore, we learn a little about Briony’s obsessive behaviour. The reader immediately learns that Briony wrote her play ‘in a two-day tempest of composition’, which suggests that – once she has an idea in mind – Briony will pursue it with little regard to herself until it has reached its conclusion. This latter part of the opening line – when coupled with her perfectionism regarding the details of how her play should be presented – goes a long way to set up the plot for the second two parts of the story where Briony desperately – and in many ways obsessively – tries to seek atonement for her mistake.

Atonement‘s first line ticks many of the boxes that we’d expect from an opening. It launches straight into the action, which is draws the reader in almost immediately, and it also sets the scene regarding the character of the young Briony. Whilst the first line does little to introduce the themes of the story, this early characterisation is essential to the plot and allows the rest of the story to unfold almost seamlessly for the reader.

Nick R B Tingley is a crime writer from the UK. After several years working as a ghostwriter, Nick released his debut novel The Bluebell Informant – the first in his DS Evelyn Giles series. He is currently working on the second in the series – The Court of Obsessions – as well as a Victorian-era mystery novella called The Butcher of Barclay’s Hollow. 

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