Monday, November 8, 2010

Whose (First) Line is it, Anyway?

A wise-beyond-her-years teacher once said to me, "You have thirty seconds to capture the reader's attention. In those first thirty seconds, they've decided whether they want to continue reading or not."

When I began to scribe the products of my imagination in a serious manner, I included this in my ten golden rules. You want your reader to be enraptured from start to finish, right? So why not make this a rule, I said to myself. And just look at the most famous writers of the twentieth century! It seems they had a hankering for powerful first lines, too.

The methods vary: shine a small ray of light onto a mysteriously dark subject or blast a cannonball-sized hole into your reader's chest. Regardless, the purpose of the first line stands. We want total control of our reader's imagination so that our story may engulf them.

Consider this opener from Thomas Pynchon's 1973 novel Gravity's Rainbow:

"A screaming comes across the sky."

Those of you familiar with this excellent novel know that it's set after World War II and centers on the design and dispatching of V-2 Missiles by the German military. This is an example of the more subtle first line. While a first-time reader would have no idea about the V-2's, a screaming across the sky paints a vivid, yet vague picture. Curiosity ensues, and the reader can't set the book down.

Consider another, this opener only five words:

"I am an invisible man."

This comes from 1952's Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (shocker, I know). Considerably less subtle, and just as poignant. It continues like this: "No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me."

This is a good example of how your first line can dish on the basic idea while the rest of the paragraph can strengthen the poignancy. Nicely done, Mr. Ellison!

Oh, and how can I leave this one out? It's one of my favorites! Coming from Hunter S. Thompson's 1971 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

"We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold." Now already some excitement has been roused. This journey will involve drugs, eh? How positively psychedelic!
"I remember saying something like 'I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive . . .' And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming, 'Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?'"

How curious does that make you? See, these authors knew exactly how to illicit emotions and desires at the very beginning of their stories.

Somewhere in between the subtle and not-so-subtle lies humor. What better way to entrance the reader than to tickle their funny bones? No one was more masterful at this than Douglas Adams. His 1979 blend of sci-fi and humor The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy starts in an especially memorable way:

"Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea."

This perfectly sums up the hilariously aware narration of the rest of the novel and even the entire series. Garnering laughs is a good way to garner attention.

Let's wind down and periodically cast away the 20th century literature. Some of you (like myself) write young adult and middle-grade fiction. Let's look to Rick Riordan's 2005 middle-grade masterpiece and magnum opus, The Lightning Thief:

"Look, I didn't want to be a half-blood."

Anyone familiar with Greek mythology instantly gets this, and even those who aren't are curious as to what exactly a half-blood is. Riordan has an especially straight-forward style that dishes the action and the humor in rapid succession. I could talk about the benefits of reading this series all day (Great way to teach your kids Greek myths, parents), but I'll contain myself. This opener speaks for itself.

There is one more method of opening the story that I find especially effective: a phrase that provokes deeper thought. Graham Greene was a master at this, and his 1951 novel The End of the Affair has a particularly thought-provoking first line:

"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."

Such a line makes you say,
Huh... I never thought about it like that. This is where the power comes from. This is generally a pleasant thought, and who doesn't want to experience more of those? Just make sure your prose can back it up.

In conclusion, you can be as subtle as a light breeze or as a shotgun; you can make your reader giggle or make them arch back their heads and rub their chins thoughtfully; no matter what, said reader will not put the book down.

I have so many favorite opening paragraphs/lines! I may as well end this post with a few more. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed!

"We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall."
Tracks by Louise Erdrich, 1988

"You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter."
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1885

"Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians."
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, 2004

He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad."
Scaramouche by Raphael Sabatini, 1921

"It was a pleasure to burn."
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, 1953

"When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton."
Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, 1954