Wednesday, August 12, 2015

First Lines

Yesterday I wrote a little about titles and that got me thinking some about first lines in stories.  If it’s the title’s job to spark interest, then it’s the first line’s job to fully ignite it.  Sometimes an author gets one chance to do that before a would-be reader places the book back on the shelf and moves on.  Keith Lee Morris, the writing professor and published author I was fortunate enough to study under at Clemson University told us once that something should happen on the first page of a story.  It doesn’t matter if this happening is integral to the remainder of the story, but if something interesting happens, writers have a greater chance of grabbing their readers and keeping them reading.  Stephen King said, “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story.  It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”  He wrote one of my favorite all-time opening lines in his book, Needful Things: “You’ve been here before.” 

Even as I look at it now I think, Oh, that’s good!  I like how it’s a modification on a line a lot of people have heard before (“I’ve been here before”), but is changed to second person point of view.  The reader is put immediately into the story by the narrator.  It’s like a conversation, that invitation that King speaks of, but there’s also something eerie about it.  And we expect nothing less from King.

And so, without further ado, some of the lines that have drawn me in over the years:

“When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child.  She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton’s heart.”  Ron Rash, Serena.   Whoa!  Okay, I’m interested.  But, the action notwithstanding, I also love Rash’s calm way of telling this intense scene.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)  Huh?  Yeah, I said that, too.  This is a different type of time and place, altogether, and we get that right away.

“It was a dark and stormy night . . .” Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830.  I include this one because it is a line most people know, even if they don’t know where it originated.  I’m fascinated at how something so simplistic has lasted for so long.  But at the same time, Bulwer-Lytton gives a lot here.  He gives the time of day and what type of day it is and in doing so, creates a mood that is needed in this first scene.

“A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” Graham Greene, The End of the Affair.  As a writer, I enjoy this line because it feels like Greene is giving a lesson on beginning a story.  Even long after I get an idea for a story, I sometimes struggle with how to begin because I’m constantly searching for the moment it starts.

“It’s hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he’s okay. It’s hard to be the one who stays.” Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife.  The story of the time traveler is one that has been around for a while.  However, what Niffenegger does here is begin her story by telling what happens to those who dare to love a time traveler, and how it affects them.  And she does that well.

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm . . .” Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind.  This first sentence says just about everything one grows to know about Scarlett.  She may not have everything, but she uses what she does have to get what she wants.

"The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door.”  All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy.  McCarthy focuses on a small detail in this opening scene, but describes it so clearly that I can see it and maybe it’s because I think candleflames are beautiful but the image is lovely.  But sometimes, also, it’s the small details that stand out in life, even in an intense scene, and sometimes they’re the ones you remember most when a memory springs forth.

Okay, I say, when reading lines like the ones above.  You’ve got my attention. 


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