I’m obsessed with opening lines. I can spend hours in a bookstore scanning first pages and evaluating the effectiveness of their greetings. What is true in the dating world applies equally to literature – the first line sets the tone for the entire story to come. It can either grab you by the metaphorical balls or wheeze pathetically as if to say, “well, I’m not much to look at, but please if you could be spared a minute or two, if it’s not too much trouble, if you don’t have anything better to do.” Crafting your own is a daunting challenge mainly because of what you are trying to avoid; you never want your hello to your reader to be the narrative equivalent of “Baby, what’s your sign.” The Bulwer-Lytton Awards, which commemorate the worst published writing, are named after the man who began his 1830 novel Paul Clifford with the immortal phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night,” and the ranks of mediocrity are plentiful enough without daring to offer one’s own work up for consideration. The trouble is there are already so many amazing examples out there, that began intimidating all writers to follow decades before you were even born. Behold just a smattering of the most familiar and most celebrated:
- “Call me Ishmael.” (Moby Dick)
- “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” (Ulysses)
- “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (1984)
- “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” (One Hundred Years of Solitude)
- “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Pride and Prejudice)
There is my personal favorite, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” (do I really have to cite it?) and a new addition to my ranks of greats: “Imagine you have to break somebody’s arm” (Hugh Laurie, The Gun Seller). So what makes a truly great opening line? I’ve read thousands and I’m still trying to figure it out.
There appears to be no singular rationale, other than that the perfect example is able to convey copious amounts of thought-provoking story information while making you hunger for more. Who is Ishmael? What is Buck Mulligan up to? Why are the clocks striking thirteen? Why is Colonel Buendia being executed, and what would compel him to recall seeing ice for the first time in the moment of his death? What has always struck me about openers is how off-handed they seem to be, as if they were composed quickly, in a matter of course of getting on with the meat of the story, even though for all I know hundreds of hours of thought and revision have accompanied each individual letter and punctuation mark, their shapes calculated precisely for maximum impact. There are limitations: the line cannot be so “out there” that it stops a reader’s momentum dead so they sit and ponder its meaning endlessly. It has to be a kick in the pants to force you onward.
The Great Gatsby‘s intro does just this: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” What does this tell us? That we are about to be led through this tale by a man who is looking back on reckless youth and continuing to this very moment to wrestle with the meaning of those years. What is the advice his father gave him and why has it haunted him since? We need to know more, hence, we need to read more. Contrast this, say, with the first line of Elmer Gantry: “Elmer Gantry was drunk.” Without factoring in the character’s name, this is really only two words. Yet they still crack open the door to a mystery that demands exploring. The book is called Elmer Gantry; why are we being introduced to the protagonist in such a disagreeable fashion? Why is he drunk – is this a regular occurrence? What could be so wrong with his life to compel him to become inebriated? Is he a tragic or comic character? Only one way to know. Turn the page.
You can drive yourself a bit batty with that first line. In writing my novel I have gone through dozens of iterations of my opener, scaling up, scaling down, going broad and universal and then small and personal, and struggling to find that ideal balance of brevity versus length, captivation versus compulsion. It’s an invitation that has to ask without sounding desperate, and has to reassure the reader that a trip inside this little world of words is going to be worth however much time we have asked for their attention. No wonder it’s as difficult as working up the courage to approach that sexy woman in the bar. I remember hearing some pick-up advice once and I wonder if it can be applied here as well. The gist was that if you are at that bar and you see a woman you are attracted to, you are obligated to approach her within 30 seconds of seeing her, otherwise not at all; the idea being that the longer you wait, the more you invest in the outcome, making a possible rejection more damaging to your ego. The lesson to be drawn, then, is to just start writing in medias res, as if you are already on to the next woman, and that first will either come along or she won’t. Being casual about it might ultimately lead to failure, but overthinking it makes failure certain. The thing to remember is that it is only a start, and where you go afterwards is what really matters.