Being January, the temptation to write a blog discussing the new year and my hopeful writing goals is overwhelming. However, I thought it would be more interesting for you if I discussed other types of beginnings, like the importance of a good opening sentence.
To get us started, here are some opening lines from famous literary works:
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.’ Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.’ Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
‘Mother died today.’ Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942)
The reason why folks religious recite the above lines whenever this topic comes up is because a) they are from recognised distinguished works and b) they encompass the heart of their respective novel in one tidy sentence. Dickens alludes to his exploration of family, love, hatred and oppression; Austen ironically encompasses the ideology of her characters and the novels narrative drive; Vladimir describes Humbert’s encompassing (though inappropriate) love for his Lolita (Dolores Haze) and Camus hooks the reader with what could be considered one of life’s most dramatic moments – the death of a parent. (However, it’s not until lines two/three/four/five/six that the reader discovered Mersault’s indifference towards his mother’s death).
Stephen King discussed his methodology in an essay for the Atlantic. King stated that he can spends months, even years conjuring up the perfect opening sentence.
‘When I’m starting a book, I compose in bed before I go to sleep. I will lie there in the dark and think. I’ll try to write a paragraph. An opening paragraph. And over a period of months and even years, I’ll word and reword it until I’m happy with what I’ve got. If I can get that first paragraph right, I’ll know I can do the book.’
Zadie Smith says, at least hyperbolically, that 80% of the time devoted to a book goes into the first 20 pages, ‘[once that’s done] everything just flows from there.’
Clearly everyone, not just emerging writers, feel the pressure to craft the ‘perfect’ opening sentence.
We’re all pretty aware that it’s getting harder and harder to get that first manuscript published. Publishing companies are shrinking, merging and disappearing while slush piles are growing. I’m not going to unpack this imbalance – what would be the point? – it is what it is. The real issue is how to make your white paper/black text combo stand out.
These slush piles are tended to by editorial assistants: entry level staff members who are paid to read manuscript after manuscript. Now, it’s reasonable to assume that a far chunk of that pile is mediocre scribblings and if you’re reading dodgy chapter after dodgy chapter, the chances of you catching ‘Zombie-Eye’ are ridiculously high.
That’s the conundrum.
How do slap some life into the drooling living dead?
How do make someone expecting bad writing, suddenly recognise you’re (hopefully) good writing? (Cos let’s be honest, most editorial assistants probably have the following mantra: There is not a single publishable manuscript in this room!)
Your best shot at literary necromancy is a killer first line. (First passage, first page, first chapter…)
Virginia Wolf says, ‘One longs for a device that is not a trick.’ Alas! A second problem. How does one craft an opening sentence that isn’t a trick? Maybe Wolf longed for this mysterious ‘device’ the same way one longs for a winning lotto ticket.
For interest’s sake, I flipped open the four novels piled on my bedside table.
‘Wake up, genius.’ Stephen King, Finders Keepers (2015)
‘I woke to the patter of rain on canvas, with the feel of my first husband’s kiss on my lips.’ Diana Gabaldon, The Fiery Cross (2001)
‘The Christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.’ Ann Patchett, Commonwealth (2016)
‘It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.’ Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (1939)
(I realise there’s not a single book by an Australian author on this list, apologises.)
The style of Gabaldon’s, King’s and Patchett’s opening lines are vastly different to Chandler’s. The former all begin with a hook or tease that suggests something more. I don’t believe these sentences count as ‘tricks’ because they are providing important information. Gabaldon establishes setting as well as character and backstory, King hooks his readers with what reads like urgent dialogue while hinting at potential character relations and Patchett sets the scene with location and problem: Albert Cousins and his gin are about to change everything.
Chandler, published a good sixty years earlier, opens with…the weather…a move that would make Elmore Leonard shudder. Obviously, I’m not saying this is a bad way to start, but it is different from the other three. I’m also not saying that it was easier to get published back in 1930s/40s, but again, it is different from the others. Obviously, the contents of my nightstand isn’t vast enough to crafted a nuanced argument from, and I am sure there are plenty of contemporary novels that DO start with the weather (there’s certainly enough ‘classics’ that open with hooks!)
I do wonder what would happen if a copy of The Big Sleep were dug out of a slush pile today. Now, I have to admit that the third sentence of The Big Sleep is rather fun, ‘I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it’, establishing the works quirky, lively tone. Maybe The Big Sleep would still get published today, especially if you swapped the first line for the third…
So, what’s the take away from this lengthy blog?
It is possible to craft a killer first sentence that is not a trick – if you make the sentence work for you. Combining enticing action with hints towards character, setting, theme or backstory – that’s what you’re aiming for. Something that will hook the reader and drag them down into the depths of your fantastic creation.
Happy writing. Happy new year.
Image by Le Portillion Typewriter
One thought on “Opening Sentences: Literary Necromancy and Trickster Devices”
Yes, the all-important opening line. Today’s openings must be arrestingly simple, stark and effective. Dickens’ first par wouldn’t get past that slush pile today (too long). In fact, Dickens might have the dickens of a job even getting published today (oops, sorry). I like the way you have compared openings. Be careful about spelling though (eg swapped, not swooped, which would better describe a kingfisher diving down for a fish) .