On Dystopians and First Lines

The fire of literary analysis!
So I was thinking today about first lines in books and how hooky they sometimes are, though more generally in the YA genre books get slapped with a prologue whose sole function is to be hooky because otherwise hey, what do you know, the prologue was pretty much entirely unnecessary.

Ahem.  Anyway, I grabbed a few books I had lying around and looked at the first lines, and was struck by immediate similarities and recurring themes.  This tickled my rusty literary analysis inclination and the result is today's post.

To narrow things down and keep some perspective, I limited my search to books I've read in the dystopian genre, of which most of the books also fall into the post-apocalyptic genre.  Incarnate slipped in there even though it's not that dystopian, as I recall.

I included the first line of the prologue (if applicable) as well as the first line of the first chapter.  I added statistics because percentages make everything more fun and I was too lazy to try making pie charts.


"When the White Noise went off, we were in the Garden, pulling weeds." (Prologue)
"Grace Somerfield was the first to die." (Chapter 1)
The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken

"Addie and I were born into the same body, our souls' ghostly fingers entwined before we gasped our very first breath." (Prologue)
"The end-of-school bell blasted everyone from their seats." (Chapter 1)
What's Left of Me by Kat Zhang

"Once upon a time there was a world..." (Prologue)
"Earth spins." (Chapter 1)
Exodus by Julie Bertagna

"We live the Old Way." (Chapter 1)
Shadows Cast by Stars by Catherine Knutsson

"There was a low droning overhead a week or so after the Detonations; time was hard to track." (Prologue)
"Pressia was lying in the cabinet." (Chapter 1)
Pure by Julianna Baggott

"It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty-three since the scientists perfected a cure." (Chapter 1)
Delirium by Lauren Oliver

"Good girls don't walk with boys." (Chapter 1)
Possession by Elana Johnson

"What is a soul, but a consciousness born and born again?" (Prologue-y bit)
"I wasn't reborn." (Chapter 1)
Incarnate by Jodi Meadows

"They came in the night." (Prologue)
"I can count the days until summer draws to a close and autumn seeps into the leaves, painting them ginger and scarlet." (Chapter 1)
Crewel by Gennifer Albin

"I wait." (Chapter 1)
Wither by Lauren DeStefano

"They called the world beyond the walls of the Pod 'the Death Shop.'" (Chapter 1)
Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

"My mother thinks I'm dead." (Chapter 1)
Legend by Marie Lu

"Lugh got born first." (Chapter 1)
Blood Red Road by Moira Young

"There is one mirror in my house." (Chapter 1)
Divergent by Veronica Roth

"I've been locked up for 264 days." (Chapter 1)
Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi

"A vibration rippled through my body." (Chapter 1)
Inside Out by Maria V. Snyder

"Now that I've found the way to fly, which direction should I go into the night?" (Chapter 1)
Matched by Ally Condie

"Daddy said, 'Let mom go first.'" (Chapter 1)
Across the Universe by Beth Revis

"When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold." (Chapter 1)
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Number of books surveyed: 19
Number of prologues: 6 (32%)

Hmm.  Broadly speaking, the immediate themes that leap out are:

Waiting/passage of time - Exodus, Pure, Delirium, Crewel, Wither, Shatter Me, Across the Universe, The Hunger Games (42%)

Life & deathThe Darkest Minds, What's Left of Me, Incarnate, Under the Never Sky, Legend, Blood Red Road (32%)

Family - What's Left of Me, Legend, Blood Red Road, Across the Universe (21%)

Freedom & incarceration - Pure, Under the Never Sky, Shatter Me, Matched (21%)

Social norms - Shadows Cast by Stars, Delirium, Possession (21%)

Some kind of alarm/alert - The Darkest Minds, What's Left of Me (11%)

I honestly thought life & death was going to win out as the most prevalent since first lines about death or unusual birth tend to be pretty hooky, but nope, it was waiting/passage of time.  You might think Across the Universe doesn't fit the category since it's Amy's dad telling her to let her mom get cryogenically frozen first, but it is a crucial moment of waiting--wait for your mom to go first, Amy, and wait to make your choice.  As for The Hunger Games, that's about the passage of time too: Katniss waking up and finding the other side of the bed is cold, implying that someone or something was sleeping beside her before and has long since left.  Which sets up quite a lot about Katniss and how she'll be alone, bereft of the warmth of family, on her way to the cold, cruel Capitol.

What does this say about YA dystopians?  That time is of the essence.  No, seriously.  If you're waiting, it means you're passive in anticipation of action, i.e. you're waiting for something [to happen].  Given that our protagonists are young adults or on the cusp of becoming thereof, doesn't that make sense?  Tweens and teens are always waiting for those grandiose legal age-markers: old enough to get my driver's license, old enough to see R-rated movies, old enough to vote and smoke, old enough to gamble and drink.  There are social age-markers too: When am I old enough to date?  To wear these clothes?  To stay out all night?  To make my own decisions?

In the contemporary genre, that's all fine and dandy!  Normative society is where all this stuff is born anyway and where we see it play out in RL.  In dystopians though, there's an additional flavor of oppression thanks to that Big Brotherly government keeping a watchful eye on and an iron fist around its people.  Teenage rebellion comes to the fore ten times more flashily in dystopians because it's rebellion not just against parental authority, but against the entire freaking government.

(Actually, parental figures tend to be rebels themselves, protecting our protagonists by defying social norms and/or the government.  I'd cite the titles here but as some of them are kind of spoilery, I'll just say there were 4 books or 21%, with an additional 3 books featuring parents that were defiant/protective at first but eventually gave up.)

In general though, the government is Lawful Evil and our protagonists represent Chaotic Good, and the emerging story is our protagonistss journey toward Lawful Good.

So these books begin with waiting and the passage of time, or passivity and showing how things used to be.  This is a representation of our heroes and heroines in a stagnant state until a catalyst occurs that catapults them into action--and the catalyst, be it noted, is 1) always an external force and 2) usually the government which 3) is always evil.  In Exodus, the rising oceans threaten to swamp Mara's little island; in Pure, Pressia flees the militia that is coming to draft and/or kill her; in Delirium, the government is going to "cure" Lena of love; in Crewel, the government plucks Adelice from her home to work for the Spinsters; in Wither, Rhine is kidnapped and sold as a bride; in Shatter Me, the government locks Juliette up and a dictator later drafts her; in Across the Universe, Amy is unfrozen early from cryogenic stasis; in The Hunger Games, Katniss must participate in a government-mandated fight to the death.

In most of these examples, the characters do not possess agency until the government forces them into (oft unwilling) action and even then they're pretty much limited to running away; true agency doesn't come about until the character reaches the crucial turning point usually 2/3 into the book.  The exceptions to this are Exodus (as Mara chooses to leave the island in search of more land and, further, convinces others to do so as well) and The Hunger Games (as Katniss volunteers in place of Prim).  Across the Universe sort of fits that bill too since ultimately it's Amy's choice whether or not to accompany her parents on their journey across space as human popsicles.

These protagonists go from living normal lives to a point where time suddenly matters because there's not enough of it.  What little there is goes by in a rush (though Wither sure took it's sweet time doing a whole lot of anguished nothing) as characters hurtle through circumstances beyond their ken, struggling to find themselves and orient their sense of right and wrong in a world that is bent against them.  Hence why, from the outset, these books start off with waiting and looking back: waiting because it is a passive but anticipatory act, and looking back because the shape of the past dictates the shape of the future.

The other great standout among these novels is how many of these first lines deal with self and identity, far beyond that imposed by the first-person narrative format.  Bear with me if I go a little past those immediate first lines to put them in context with the rest of the book.  (9 books, so about 47%.)

In What's Left of Me, the narrator speaks of twin souls born into a single body: her soul and her sister's, together since birth.  The definition of self is (ahem) self-explanatory.

Shadows Cast by Stars immediately states that the narrator lives "the Old Way," implying hearkening back to one's roots over a normative contemporary lifestyle.

Incarnate starts off with the crucial difference between the narrator and the rest of the world, that she is not a reincarnated soul.  Differences, ah!  YA is all about being different, just like YA is all about identity, finding oneself, coming of age, and first experiences.  In the case of first experiences, Ana just takes it to extremes since she's experiencing everything for the first time.

Wither begins with the simple statement "I wait", indicating passivity and immediately bringing to mind impatience and frustration--and setting the themes and tone for the rest of the book as Rhine becomes a prisoner in a golden cage.  I spent a lot of this book waiting for something to happen and not very much ever did.

Legend's narrator identifies himself via his mother, who thinks he's dead when obviously he isn't, bringing up issues of life and death, deceit, and family ties all in one sentence.  Good job, Legend!

Blood Red Road opens with the narrator stating that her brother was born first, thereby framing his importance to the story as well as to herself from the beginning.  Since Saba and Lugh are twins, and by putting him first in the story, this seems to indicate that Saba is subservient to Lugh, a position that will be challenged throughout the book.  Or so I kind of sort of maybe remember, since I didn't like the book that much and my recollection is sketchy.

Divergent brings identity/self to the forefront more symbolically in the form of a mirror: there's only one in the narrator's house.  Tris's current Faction has oppressed her entire life, as a point is made about how infrequently she is allowed to even look at herself in the mirror, the ultimate denial of self as she is denied even her own reflection; the Abnegation Faction has shaped her to be as gray and drab as the clothes it dictates she wear.  At its core, Divergent is about a girl's search for identity and independence as much as it is about building and breaking bonds.

Shatter Me is about time, and isolation, and loneliness.  Juliette has been locked up for nearly a year.  She states it simply and with precise detail--264 days.  This stark, spare statement is at odds with the majority of the prose in the book, which is lush with metaphor and hyperbole; the contrast is deliberately meant to draw attention to itself and to Juliette's fractured sense of self, denying what she is while accepting (and condemning) herself for it.

Matched is all about freedom as Cassia imagines herself flying anywhere she wishes to go--a fancy which she immediately and wistfully dismisses as foolish.  Cassia would say she is not unhappy with her life, but the fact that she imagines the limitless possibilities offered by unrestricted flight right from the first line shows she's not quite so content as she thinks.

Lastly, we have the oddball that didn't fit into any of the categories above: Inside Out.  It features an interesting but unfigurative first line about a vibration rippling through the narrator's body.  It is a descriptive line (action-oriented if you think of the vibration as an action, receptive-oriented if you think of the narrator's body and also passive in that case), and a line that piques interest but doesn't have any symbolism or metaphors going on.  Not that there's anything wrong about starting a book with a non-weighty line!  In fact, it's rather refreshing, particularly after I've dumped all this analysis on everything else.

Ultimately, within the sphere of YA, dystopians tend to focus on authority forcing passive protagonists into defiant action, i.e. the government typically incites rebellion.  Protagonists are driven by the search for identity and the pursuit of freedom and/or justice, on pain of death and on cost of life.  All this boiled down from first lines and a sudden burst of literary analysis.  Thank you, and goodnight.

Have you noticed any first-line trends in particular genres?  Share your favorite opening line!


Connie Keller said...

Wow! There are some books here I haven't read that sounds great--they are going on my TRB list.

I agree with you that a lot of dystopians begin with waiting, and we get a sense of tension that's been building for years and we wonder what will it be that finally pushes the MD over the edge. And I can't help but wonder, what would it take for me if I were them...

Trish Esden said...

Great post.

I spent yesterday reading first lines for inspiration, and you covered lines and ideas I didn't see anywhere else. Thanks!

Unknown said...

A great post and analysis, Alz! :D

(I've honestly stopped paying hyper-attention to first lines because, eh,I can SEE how hard they are trying to be hooky and unique and 'LOOK AT ME I AM A FIRST LINE WHEE' and I really just want to get on with the story, you know?)

Julie Dao said...

This is an excellent post. It's interesting that the theme of time is used most often to start a dystopian. It probably helps increase the urgency and the feeling that this is a world out of whack, giving the protagonist conflict and a wrong to right.

XiXi said...

This is a really interesting post. I like the in-depth analysis. Thanks for the thought-provoker.

Golden Eagle said...

Interesting analysis!

I don't tend to pay that much attention to first lines, to be honest. I'll notice good ones--but other than that, I tend to judge the book after the first chapter or so.

I've noticed the government-as-evil theme in dystopian quite often in the books I've read.

Anonymous said...

EXCELLENT post! There's definitely a theme here. Thanks for breaking it down. Gonna tweet this post!

linda said...

I really like the analytic way you approached this! I hope you'll do more of these posts in the future. :)

It's funny because when I was reading the list of first lines I felt super "meh" about all of them. None of them felt particularly intriguing or hook-y to me, and some of them annoyed me. I guess first lines are just not my thing -- it usually takes me some time to warm up to books. :P