Firsts in First Lines

Some time ago, as part of my requirements for my MFA program, I had to construct a critical paper that focused on an aspect of the craft of fiction. I chose to do a critical analysis of the 100 best lines in novels, as comprised by the American Book Review. It’s a list that’s been around since 2006, and one often referred back to. The next few weeks posts will be excerpts from that critical paper, in which I isolate different aspects of what makes a great first line. Enjoy.

Charlie set his mug of black coffee on the desk next to the dusty keyboard. He ran his hands through his thick black hair and stared at the empty Microsoft Word document in front of him. The cursor winked at him mockingly, as if it knew how to start the story better than he did. And right now, Charlie thought it might.

Sound familiar? As writers we struggle with beginnings. More often than not, our opening page will undergo multiple reconstructive surgeries. We type, delete, repeat. We think something is wrong with us, or something is wrong with the story. Maybe we’re right. What we can’t express, though we feel it, is that there’s something wrong with the first line. The opening sentence, more than any other, sets a tone for the following prose; a tone that, ideally, will run through the remainder of the story.

But how does one craft this first line effectively? Editors, agents, and creative writing faculty have given suggestion like establishing conflict or character, beginning with something unexpected and surprising, painting a vivid setting or establishing a strong voice, and leading with dialogue. How accurate are these suggestions? Why are some lines remembered for years, decades, even centuries, while countless others never garner public interest in any capacity? To help answer the question, we can look at a list of the 100 best lines from novels as compiled by the American Book Review. When we look at these closely, we can see how many of these suggestions are followed, and how successful they are according to the list. The trends and similarities between lines will give us an insight into what readers respond to and remember most. Considering these similarities (conflict, character, surprises, setting, voice, and dialogue) will benefit novelists as they begin or revise their own long fiction.


THE CASE FOR THE FIRST LINE

Jerome Stern, author of Making Shapely Fiction, encourages potential writers to remember that “beginnings are a tough business. They need to be intriguing and energetic. Readers and editors are impatient. They don’t read far if their attention is not engaged by the opening page,” (96). So we get a full page? Not necessarily. Most editors will read it out of due diligence, but often their minds are made up long before the end of page one. However, if we can put a first line together that lives beyond the first page, well, that’s gold.

Charlene Patterson, Managing Fiction Editor at Bethany House Publishers, asserts that “far too many authors do not pay proper attention to their first line,” (Patterson 1). It seems to me that if it’s important to editors, it should be important to writers as well.

What then, do they look for? Patterson clarifies—specifically, she looks for “something original or unexpected, and something that begins in the middle of the action (as opposed to a description of the character or scene-setting). [She] especially like[s] it if the first line gives [her] a strong sense of the narrative voice right away,” (Patterson 1). Notably, this is a lot to do in one sentence.

Echoing Patterson’s comments, Steve Heller, Professor and Chair of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Antioch University of Los Angeles, states, “Any opening sentence should perform at least one of the following five functions: 1) Capture the reader’s attention without sensationalizing the subject. 2) Create a feeling of movement (establish conflict). 3) Establish tone, mood, and/or situation. 4) Create an initial impression of a character. 5) Establish the story’s voice,” (Heller “Getting us started…”).

Tom Grimes, director of the MFA program at Texas State University, feels that there might be even more to do. Rather than simply establishing a character and setting (say something like, “Aunt May lived in Newberry Springs, California,”) we need to pay attention to how we establish it, how does the information cease to be telling and become something memorable and enduring? In American Book Review, Grimes asserts that “The mystery [of the first line] is in the music of the prose, its measures and rhythms, and through that music a novel announces its authority,” (Harris 7).

The first line, perhaps more than anything else, is the foundation for the rest of the story. It is an establishing line—that is, its job is to establish various threads that will run through the story. Among these are: voice, setting, dialogue and action, conflict, and character. It all seems so overwhelming, doesn’t it? Are you like me? Are you glad Heller said, “at least one”? This would seem to cut down our work considerably. Heller further clarifies by stating, “few first sentences do [all five], but if your opening doesn’t perform at least one of them, I’d worry about what it’s accomplishing in their place,” (Heller “The First Rule…”).

Perhaps you feel like this paper might be putting too much emphasis on the first line. It is, after all, only one line. Why not the first paragraph, or the first page? Why spend so much time crafting and perfecting one sentence in a work of hundreds of pages?

The answer is two-fold. First, beginning with a stilted, forced line will cause the next sentence to be wooden. The line after that, in an attempt to better explain and clarify the first two lines, will be stiff and overly expository. At some point, whatever lyrical cadence you’d hoped to have at some point may have vanished in an attempt to simply tell a story, rather than showing it. I trust you don’t want to go down the path of show v. tell. We all know how that case ended. Conversely, a clean-cut, well-drafted opening will set the tone for the remainder of the story.

In some cases, authors have put together entire stories, even complete novels, from a single line that crawled into their imagination. But it doesn’t always happen so organically. Oftentimes, finding the perfect opening requires a lot of work. Some don’t find the right line until the story is completed. Occasionally, the line they want to begin with is actually on page three. Should they really scrap the first two pages just for a solid opening? Writing is revising, and cutting, more often than not, leads to cleaner prose. Cutting two pages of pretentious prose is never something to mourn.

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