Tuesday, November 17, 2009

First Lines

I don't like this kind of writing, though it's the kind of writing I often find myself doing:

After she died, it was as if I had broken my arm. A part of me ached all the time, and something that had been functional was now useless, and everything about my daily routine needed to be navigated differently. It was difficult, for instance, to stand in line at the post office or buy groceries or make dinner. Nothing seemed to matter anymore.

A lot of writing opens up with lines such as these, designed to lure the reader into the heart of the article or story, causing them to wonder what the rest of the story is about, and in this case, who the "she" who died is, and what her relationship is to the author.

I've had very similar opening lines when I've contemplated certain chapters of my book, such as, "I didn't know it was possible to feel such pain." It's not a bad opening line for a chapter on something that was difficult, but at the same time it seems to be of a certain class of writing that is formulaic, and I don't like that. It seems melodramatic to me, and perhaps hinting towards narcissism.

As I was writing this above, I decided to do a Google search on the "Best Opening Lines" of novels. There is always something mysterious about the first lines of a book or of a chapter that should draw us in, but what I don't like about the excerpt I quoted above, is that it's so obvious that the author is indeed trying to draw us in. We know that the particular details will slowly be illuminated for us, as if someone is pulling back a curtain slowly, though of course we don't know what insights the author will bring to us, but it's so clear what's going on. I think writing should be like slight of hand, wooing seductively in such a secretive way that before the reader knows what's happened, you have him or her in the palm of your hand.

I think good writing always surprises, and never goes where we expect it to go, and an opening line should grab us, by surprising us.

A few great opening lines that surprise me:

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.

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.

I am an invisible man.

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.

We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.

A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.

I think surprising lines, and surprising directions are what make for good fiction. In my case, writing non-fiction, I suppose there is less room for this, but I still want to make it a good read, and I do believe that there is still room for the surprise, or slight of hand, or sending someone in a direction that they hadn't considered before. I like using common phrases, but contorting their meaning in such a way that reveals another way of looking at something. I think Chesterton is my inspiration in this regard.

All this musing about writing, and writing a new entry on my blog is merely procrastinating from the job at hand: working on this book, which has been sitting dormant for nearly five months. The truth about first lines is this: you don't need to write the first line first. It's time to get crackin'.

1 comment:

kkollwitz said...

Those were a great bunch of lines....I had expected to see 'it was a dark & stormy night.'

"It's time to get crackin"

My experience with architecture is that you draw whether you have a good idea or not....I think it's the same with writing.