Friday, March 22, 2013

The Opening Line

             Sentence One:  In the beginning...
"Call me Ishmael." ––Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins." ––  Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

Those lines are used up. Taken. No writer will ever again begin a book with these words.

Sol Stein, renowned editor, author, and instructor, explains in Stein on Writing: "Today, first sentences. . . are increasingly important for arousing the restless reader." He adds that "arousal is an author's stimulus for the reader. Without early arousal, the reader does not yet trust that he will enjoy the experience that the writer has prepared." Later, he writes, ". . . the unusual is a factor in arousing the reader's interest."

     "What should be in an opening line?" asks Les Edgerton in Hooked. He answers his own question with: "Anything that  provokes the reader into reading the second one. And the third, and the fourth––you get the picture."

     Sometimes it's the tone of the opening sentence, or its attitude, or an incongruent word, or the fact that the writer has put the reader smack dab in the middle of trouble. Wouldn't you want to read further?

     Other first lines by famous writers:
  •      "Mother died today." ––Albert Camus, The Stranger
  •      "I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills." ––Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa
  •      "He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-   four days now without taking a fish." ––Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
  •      "What made me take this trip to Africa? ––Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King    
      "Those are prize-winning writers who wrote with past standards," you say. "What about today's writers who have to write for shorter attention spans?" you ask. Fair enough. I've a few samples, and hope you agree not much has changed with a writer's need to hook a reader.
  •      "It was Edwin who wanted to build a new house." ––Nancy Horan, Loving Frank
  •      "I'm ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other." ––Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants
  •      "I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster." ––Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle
  •      "When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her." ––Ann Patchett, Bel Canto
  •     "Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last. ––Sena Jeter Naslund, Ahab's Wife
        I end this Post with questions that Stein asks:
"There are questions you can ask yourself about your own first sentence:  Does it convey an interesting personality or an action that we want to know more about? Can you make your first sentence more intriguing by introducing something unusual, something shocking perhaps, or something that will surprise the reader?" 
     Let me know if this has been useful. For more detailed information, check out the two recommended books listed here.