The first line: Begin with fanfare
Published: May 7, 2001
|A great first line may be difficult to write, but it's the best way to hook the reader|
The opening is very important in a story. So is the end. And, so is everything in between.
But seductive openings, I think, are the hardest to write. They can be elusive. You need to get lucky, as E.B. White did with Charlotte's Web. Was there ever a more arresting curtain-raiser than: "Where's Papa going with that ax?"
Often it seems that the best opening lines are already taken. "Call me Ishmael." "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Or the most seductive of them all, "Once upon a time."
That delight of our childhood is certainly the most enduring of literary cliches and one that has earned a happy retirement. The closest I ever came to using it was in a novel, By the Great Horn Spoon (Little, Brown), when I wrote: "It was not once upon a time—it was precisely the 27th day of January in the year 1849."
Do you recognize this door-opener to a great world novel? "For many years I used to go to bed early." It would not win any trophies in these sweepstakes, I think, but it shows that even Marcel Proust recognized the need to open Remembrance of Things Past with a bang—for him, anyway. It must be one of the shortest sentences he ever wrote.
When I was a young, struggling, bewildered writer—boy, was I bewildered—we used to receive mail twice a day. That was a special act of cruelty to writers on the part of the post office, as it enabled us to be rejected twice a day.
In those days of heartless rejection, I kept reading in the textbooks about "reader hook." Apparently, you needed to hook the reader like a carp in the first paragraph, or the especially impatient reader would flee to play miniature golf or something, as television hadn't yet been invented.
Especially today, with attention spans shrinking, we must pay scrupulous attention to the opening lines and chapters of our stories.
I can't forget, a few years ago, reading a beginner's script in which the author introduced nine characters—count 'em, nine—in the opening paragraph. You needed to take a memory course to keep them straight. That was not opening with a bang.
This is: "I am a rat." That's the way poet and novelist Julia Cunningham, author of the memorable Dorp Dead (Pantheon), began one of her novels.
But one can't always find such a deft opening. I have written almost 60 books, which means that I have come to bat almost 60 times, struggling to find an over-the-fence opening. You start your career over again every time you sit down to a new book.
I try for brevity and I try for movement—action of some sort. I opened Yellowleg (Gold Medal), a fledgling novel and the basis for a Sam Peckinpah film, with two words: "The hat."
Despite its brevity, that phrase gets the story up on its legs fast, for it deals with a Westerner who had been scalped by another man. Needless to say, my hero won't take off his hat, not even in church.
To open with action doesn't mean that World War III need break out. Here's my action opening for The Midnight Horse (Greenwillow): "It was raining bullfrogs."
That has style. That has movement. That has bang.
|Normally, I give as much thought to the opening of a story as I do the title. In looking through my many openings, I see that I sometimes came in second. But sometimes I got lucky, as I did with the opening salvo of The Whipping Boy (Greenwillow). Here's a failed attempt: "The King was holding a feast. His son, young Prince something-or-other ... ." How dull. How tired. How routine. Those so-what sentences were just cobwebs I had to clear from my head.|
After many tries, I ended up with this: "The young prince was known here and there (and just about everywhere else) as Prince Brat. Not even black cats would cross his path." That second sentence firmly sets the hook.
Sometimes the entire opening chapter will play hide and seek with you. I once heard a novelist confess that he usually wrote from 30 to 60 pages before he found his true starting flag.
The trouble with finding a beguiling beginning is that you must keep it up. The first chapter, for me, is always the toughest.
Quite recently, I read the opening pages of a novel that consisted of nothing but scenic description and other forms of literary housekeeping. The drama was held up in traffic. There was no tension. There was no bang.
Many things are demanded in chapter one—and all at once. I sometimes feel like a juggler juggling buzz saws. That bang-up first chapter needs to:
• Set your style.
• Give a few details that suggest narrative background.
• Give your main characters an entrance—with trumpets, if possible. Clue the reader into their attitudes, eccentricities and relationships.
• Reveal, in dialogue, how the characters speak.
• Give a weather report.
• Set the plot in motion, even if you only foreshadow the events to follow (remember Yellowleg's hat?)
• Make sure something is happening in that first chapter. Still lives are for painters.
• And finally, you must do it all without knocking over the furniture or closing doors. Who said writing was just a game of tiddlywinks?
There are times when you have no choice but to defy reason and take chances on page one. You then must use all of your skills, or the reader will thank you for a good night's sleep.
Here's a personal and almost bizarre example of a story that needed to open with the dreaded backstory, that sleeping sickness of storytelling. As you'll see, it had the benefit of being immediate backstory—maybe 10 minutes old, with plenty of fishhooks imbedded in it in the form of active verbs.
To explain: When visiting schools, I often would show kids how to plot their own stories, and I'd arrive with a few animal plots up my sleeve for protection. I thought it would be fun to put these stories together in a book. But I couldn't think of a way to hold the scattered material together. It needed a center of gravity that eluded me—I couldn't figure out where to take the first bite out of the apple.
I mulled the problem over at odd moments for a couple of years. Then, one afternoon, I lay down to take a nap and the most extraordinary thing started to happen. Complete sentences began to spin out of my mind like ticker tape. They were the opening lines of the book, leading unmistakably into the first chapter.
I jumped up, ran downstairs to my desk and began scribbling before the lines evaporated. Here's the opening, exactly as the sentences arrived, prepaid by my unconscious and exactly as they appear in A Carnival of Animals, (Greenwillow): "A no-account little tornado came twirling like a ballerina across the countryside. It meant to do no great mischief. It went this way and that, jiggety joggedy, as if to show off its swirling brown veils."
That tornado became the common event that I had been seeking, as will become evident: "When the tornado bumped into a forest of cottonwoods, the trees did have to hang onto their leaves with all their might. But soon the twister had whisked itself away, east of Barefoot Mountain, and the animals climbed out of their burrow and shelters."
Even though the tornado seems to be happening before our eyes (those active verbs), it is nevertheless backstory. My tales couldn't start until the tornado had come and gone. Each of the animals was deeply affected by it.
The scruffy red rooster, for example, develops insomnia. It begins crowing at 2 or 3 in the morning, disturbing and enraging the other animals, and triggering a story. A frog munches Mexican jumping beans left behind by the tornado. A razorback hog learns to play a wind-blown harmonica. Other animal comedies came dancing right along.
Now, every time I take a nap, I wait for sentences to start unreeling—but alas, it has not happened again.
But writers are wonderfully optimistic. I think I'll take another nap.
Illustration by Kellie Jaeger