Monday, February 7, 2011

Opening sentences

I've been thinking a lot about openings - of the literary variety, as well the theatrical. More and more I'm seeing how if you don't let a reader or audience see clearly from the onset what they're in for, they might never get on the ride.

I'm currently working on six musicals at once, so I'm still sorting out my thoughts on what's needed there, but I can post here my thoughts on what makes a great opening for a novel.

I think the best first lines do the following:

1) Make a strong impact

2) Convey mystery and suspense

3) Relate to the overall theme of the book

Perhaps the finest example is from E.B. White's Charlotte's Web:

"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

One simple line accomplishes all three conditions. 1) What could be a stronger impact than an ax? 2) The suspense is inherent in the question and, most artfully, 3) The sentence encapsulates the entire premise and central conflict of the book, which is that Wilbur the pig will be slaughtered. Moreover, it does it in a matter-of-fact way over breakfast, underscoring White's theme of the naturalness of the cycles of life.

It's a brilliant sentence.

Here are some of my other favorites:

Tap-dancing child abuser. That’s what The Sunday New York Times from March 8, 1993, had called Vivi.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Rebecca Wells

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all.
The Gift of the Magi, O.Henry

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if you’re dead.
A Certain Slant of Light, Laura Whitcomb

All children, except one, grow up.
Peter Pan, James Barrie

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me.
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger


Fran said...

One of my favorite opening lines is "I stood on the outside of disaster, looking in." In The Frame, Dick Francis

Bob said...

Terrific selection, Marc. First sentences, first paragraphs, first pages so often mean the difference between a book being read and stuck back on the bookstore shelf.

Another one, by John Wyndham, from his 1950s sci-fi chiller "The Day of the Triffids":

"When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere."

Edmund Morris, in his intro to my copy, points out that Wyndham rewrote that sentence from a considerably thicker first draft:

"On the day when the Great Calamity put an end to the world I had known for almost thirty years, I happened to be in bed with a bandage all over my head and around my eyes."

Too much information there; he was smart to cut it down. The sentence he arrived at does a great job of suggesting the mood in all of Wyndham's novels, which is that extraordinarily disastrous things sneak up on you, and are often barely noticed at first in the midst of everyday things.

GR said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
GR said...

Another favorite first line--

"Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know."
-Camus, The Stranger

MelTheDestroyer said...

I'm obsessed with beginnings. I haven't read half the books on my shelf, but I've at least read the first page of all of them.

I've never really thought about it before, but what you say makes sense: it (should, at least) tell you what you're in for. My Shakespeare professor was talking about this a little when we did Hamlet. The first line is "Who's there?"--a theme which pops up through the rest of the play (also, yes, impact and suspense).

Manda said...

In education we call this a learning target. you've got to let the students know exactly what they are in for and get them excited about it with your first sentence! It has to be masterfully done or you've lost them before you've begun (loving my rhyme!)!

"Boys and girls, have you ever made a rainbow?"