Sunday, September 11, 2011
As my friend Fraulein Maria says, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”
I was recently rereading A TALE OF TWO CITIES by Charles Dickens, and was blown away (as always) by the opening line. You’ve probably heard it: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” etc., etc. In the history of literature that has to be one of the best first lines ever written.* I mean, the sheer physical size of the sentence (119 words) is enough to catch the reader’s attention. Then, on top of that, Dickens covers every emotion on the spectrum by pointing out that for every good thing that exists there is a dark side (Luke…I am your faaaather…) working against it. Glad it’s the “spring of hope?” Guess what? It’s also the “winter of despair.” Pretty excited that we have “everything before us?” We don’t. We have “nothing before us.” Maybe Dickens was Taoist, because he totally nailed the whole yin and yang thang (that's right, I said it).
(As an aside, Dickens uses a concept called anaphora in that opening line. I tried to work in this vocabulary wonder in a clever way, but alas, fell short.)
I agonize over first lines. I write them and rewrite them, knowing full well I’ll just be going back in revisions and rewriting them again. It’s like the hook line in a query letter; your one shot to win someone’s attention. It’s not only the reader’s first taste of the story; it’s the starting point for which the remainder of the manuscript is framed. It’s your first impression, your pick-up line, your hope that they’re interested enough to learn a little bit more.
So how do you make an opening line catchy without being kitschy? How do you tease, but not appease? (Ok, ok, enough.) There are a million and a half ways to do this (I’ve counted). I don’t claim to be an expert on first lines by any means, but I LOVE to read them, so here are a few themes meant to inspire:
1. Inviting the reader in. A “Come join me whilst I tell you a tale,” kind of opening.
2. A “We’re-catching-this-story-halfway-through” news report. Stating the action as though the reader’s been thrust right into the thick of things. (The opening of the HATE LIST by Jennifer Brown is a pretty shocking example)
3. A sense of foreboding. “In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind.” – GRACELING by Kristin Cashore.
4. Something sarcastic and biting. My favorite example of this is from CATCHER IN THE RYE (J.D. Salinger): “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me…”
5. An important memory. “I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.” SHIVER by Maggie Stiefvater.
6. Something shocking, off the wall, or intriguing, such as “The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.” – THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by Patrick Ness.
7. A funny start is always good in my opinion. See the opening of WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON, or anything by John Green, really.
8. A really surprising wham! Pow! Zap! kind of line. Bullets flying. Light sabers crashing. You get the idea.
9. Dialog. I always feel like immediately I’m part of the conversation when a story opens with dialog. Love this one: “There are places you can go,” Ariana tells him, “And a guy as smart as you has a decent chance of surviving to eighteen.” – UNWIND by Neal Shusterman.
10. Or you can do what I did. After five hundred rewrites, go for simple: “Beth and Ryan were holding hands.” Yup. That’s the first line to ARTICLE 5. Earth-shattering, I know.
So, these are a few of the things I think about when writing/revising my opening lines. I hope they help; there’s nothing more satisfying than feeling like you finally found the right key to open your front door.
*To clarify, I love it; therefore, it is one of the best lines ever written in the history of literature.