Tuesday, October 25, 2005

For Openers~First Lines

Let it be known that I am navigating the waters of Shitty First Draft Land, where every word stinks on ice and MY OWN opening paragraph reads like I mailed away for it using the coupon on the back of a cereal box. I'll need to hack it apart with a machete and use maybe one word from it in the next draft. (Maybe "a"... I seemed to use that word correctly.)

But soon I will be moving from Shitty First Draft Land to Mediocre Second Draft City, and so on, and so on.... And I hope that not just my opening line, but the rest of the novel, somehow becomes compelling!

So hello, Flusters McKnucklesby, the Tactical Tuesday Rodent... here we are to discuss opening hooks!

Tactical Tuesday~For Openers

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."~ Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

"All children, except one, grow up."~J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

"It was a pleasure to burn."~Ray Bradbury, Farenheit 451

"Call me Ishmael."~Herman Melville, Moby Dick

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."~Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongye taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta"~Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (Best. Book. Ever. Oops, sorry, that was me, editorializing....)

"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."~Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”~George Orwell, 1984

Wow! How are we supposed to come close to any of these inspired gems?

It could be argued that your opening line is the most important line in the novel. One thing's for sure... agents and editors aren't going to go digging through your work looking for great lines. If there isn't something excellent right up front... fuhgeddaboutit.

In his writing manual The First Five Pages, agent Noah Lukeman explains that authors have five pages or less with which to get an agent or editor's attention. Five pages! Out of what... three hundred plus pages in your novel! And similarly, how many times have you read the opening to a novel, yawned in boredom, and put it away? I'll admit to being an impatient reader... I've done it many times! Life is too short to read boring books!

But how do we as writers come up with effective openings?

First, be conscious of WHAT A GOOD OPENING SHOULD DO. An effective opening should put questions into the reader's mind. The old reporter's list of The Five Ws and the H is a good start: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How?

WHO is Ishmael?

WHAT is Manderley?

WHEN were the times both so very good and so very bad?

WHERE on earth would you 'discover' ice?

WHY was it 'a pleasure to burn'?

HOW do clocks strike thirteen?

And of course, most all these "killer openings" evoke MORE than one of these "Five Ws and the H" questions.

Now, an effective opening LINE won't save a poor opening SCENE, and we'll talk more next week about writing compelling opening scenes. Often, though, an opening line that brings to mind the questions listed above ITSELF springs the author (and, we hope, the reader) into a fascinating opening scene.

In addition, opening lines ought to establish VOICE. It wouldn't do, would it, to follow the following opening line:

"Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were."

With a second line of something like:

"Ah wis jist sitting thair, focusing oan the telly, tryin not tae notice the cunt."

No, non, nein, nej, nyet!

(As you probably know, the first line above is the opening line of Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell; the second is the second line of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting.)

In addition to posing questions and establishing voice, opening lines paint a setting or evoke a mood, which can be an effective, though slower, beginning to your novel, perhaps most appropriate to epic novels, fantasy or historical fiction (though not exclusively). [But PLEASE, please, PLEASE, PEOPLE, don't start a novel or a chapter with a "Weather Report"! The technique is overused, and while any rule can (and should) be broken, at least break it consciously... do it with a bit of irony or something... 'kay?]

The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest offers prizes for the WORST openings. Here's the 2005 winner:

"As he stared at her ample bosom, he daydreamed of the dual Stromberg carburetors in his vintage Triumph Spitfire, highly functional yet pleasingly formed, perched prominently on top of the intake manifold, aching for experienced hands, the small knurled caps of the oil dampeners begging to be inspected and adjusted as described in chapter seven of the shop manual."

Dan McKay
Fargo, ND

Oh, PLEASE go explore that site if you're in need of some giggles. But it might be a good idea to save the rest of these until AFTER you've crafted your own effective one! Wouldn't want to hang around any bad influences, after all...

Ray Rhamey, Editor Extraordinaire at Flogging the Quill, discussed the "great opening lines" issue some time ago. I link it here for further reading. Although I wrote today's article before discovering his, we hit on many of the same points, which just proves great minds think alike, right, Ray?