August 14, 2010

"To all you people who ever said I was a big nothing, I’m here to say you were wrong. "

I'm one of those people you probably hate who think that the opening line of a book is not only important but possibly (arguably) critical to everything that follows. Standing in a bookstore I'll sometimes decide whether or not to buy a book on the construction and execution of the first line alone. And I actually collect them.

You know what I'm talking about. Just think of the famous, now cliched, line that goes "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." Hell everybody knows that one, right?

That's what I mean. I think first lines are important and can be a kind of icon. But (for my writer friends) if you don't - don't start obsessing about it after reading this. Just do your own shtick. Okay? That's just me.

For myself, I'll labor over a goddamn opening line for days. And change it a dozen times. It's got to work right NOW or else it takes too long to get the reader inside and you run the risk of losing them. It has to have some quality, some tangible thing that makes everything else after it work.

Here's some good ones, I think...

"A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father." - from Berg by Ann Quin

"At the beginning of summer I had lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the weekend to transact some of his vague business." - Michael Chabon The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

"I think it is the year 1909." - Opening vignette in the intertwined short stories from Delmore Schwartz's In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

"There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a canker." - The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat

"I am merely copying, word for word, what was in the State Gazette today." WE by Yevgeny Zamyatin

"Life and death, dreaming and wakefulness: stations for the perplexed soul." The Journey of Ibn Fattouma by Naguib Mahfouz

Of course it helps if what follows can carry the load. But the tone-setter is right there. It's all in there. Or should be. Story has happened, now you tell it. And why is it interesting enough to read? Because the opening got you.

Yeah okay, another one of my OC things. But, there ya go.


sybil law said...

I definitely agree. If the opening line doesn't catch me right off, doesn't mean I won't read the rest of the book, but I am sorely disappointed.

SK Waller said...

That first sentence is all-important. I've been working on mine since I began this book last winter--and it's still changing.

In my current project it's not about being catchy or memorable, but about a feeling, or a mood, that tells the reader, really, everything they need to know about the main character. It also has to set the tone for the era, that kicked back, "Wow, man, that's heavy..." Sixties thing. But more, I want the reader to hear the music more than read the words.

I'll probably work on it some more today.

Petunia said...

At the risk of sounding like I'm straight out of high school english class:

"Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt."

"When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous insect."

Even better for the depth available for the debate over the translation of Ungeziefer (insect).

B.E. Earl said...

Sometimes it's not the first line, but the first paragraph or page.

Shirley Jackson - The Haunting of Hill House.

"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill house, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for 80 years and might for 80 more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."

Maybe a few too many semi-colons for some, but for me...perfect.