Beg Your Pardon? The Unexpected First Line
The following is an excerpt from my critical paper I submitted to Antioch University of Los Angeles as part of the requirements for attaining my MFA in Fiction Writing. It focuses on the third of seven different techniques for creating compelling first lines. Admittedly, this is my favorite technique. Enjoy.
Nearly as popular as establishing conflict and character (30 of the 100 lines) is the urge of authors to catch their readers off guard. And, like conflict and character, there’s a wide range of ways the listed writers chose to do this. Some choose to scribe seemingly nonsensical ideas, as Ronald Sukenick in Blown Away, “Psychics can see the color of time it’s blue” (100BestLines.asp 93). Perhaps the most fun and memorable, however, are the lines that force us to re-read them. In I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith, the opening line reads, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink” (100BestLines.asp 82).
Beginning with something surprising, be it in terms of setting, character, conflict, or voice, essentially puts a question in the mind of the reader—a question that creates mystery and prompts them to continually flip pages. And while it should be the goal of the writer to pen an opening that will forcefully grab the reader and plunge them into the fiction—the fiction should never be so dark as to be unlit. That is to say, it is important to not confuse mystery with murky.
The difference is subtle, and the line is fine. Often, we’ll want to begin with a character who is disoriented, uneasy, and confused. How frequently, through the course of a creative writing workshop, do one or more authors insist that they, “only want the reader to feel the confusion and bewilderment of the protagonist?” Readers who are confused, however, are not compelled to read further. They’re prompted instead to put the book down. The reader must always be grounded in the concrete.
But then, where is the mystery? We’ve seen so many strong opening lines so far, that it might be easy to overlook. The mystery lies in the simple questions that readers have, and that question should be specific. It should reflect the opening line. “Why is an angry man dragging another man through an orchard?” “Why is Orlando slicing at the head of a Moor that is swinging from the rafters?” When the reader is asking these kinds of precise questions, it is a sign that they’ve been pulled fully into the fiction.