November 24th, 2009

OPENING LINES

OPENERS


"When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing."
----Enrique Jardiel Poncela

"It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn't give it up because by that time I was too famous." ---Robert Benchley


Today's topic for balance: OPENING LINES.

I'm guessing we've all heard, at some point, that the opening lines/ paragraphs of your story are critical. They MUST draw the reader in immediately. The more gripping, the more succinct, the better. Your reader must instantly want to know more. If they don't, you will lose them.

Hey, this is very true. I'm not going to argue.

Well.....yes. Yes, I am. Because I can think of plenty of cherished, loved, adored novels that I read as a young adult or child...and just as many of them had openings that instantly "sucked you in" as did not.

Example:

"The Primroses were over."

---Richard Adams, WATERSHIP DOWN

Not exactly gripping, is it? Doesn't tell you much, does it? But Watership Down was a favorite of mine and I reread it many times.

"In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice I've been turning over in my mind ever since.
"Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."
--F. Scott Fitzgerald, THE GREAT GATSBY

"Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw."

---Margaret Mitchell, GONE WITH THE WIND

"Late in the afternoon of a chilly day in February, two gentlemen were sitting alone over their wine, in a well-furnished parlor, in the town of P--, in Kentucky. There were no servants present, and the gentlemen, with chairs closely approaching, seemed to be discussing some subject with great earnestness."

----Harriet Beecher Stowe, UNCLE TOM'S CABIN

"Once when I was six years old I saw a magnificent picture in a book, called True Stories from Nature, about a primeval forest. It was a picture of a boa constrictor in the act of swallowing an animal."
---Antoine de Saint Exupery, THE LITTLE PRINCE


Tell me something. If you went to a writer's conference today, in one of those catchy "First lines" workshops, would any of these stand the test of a roomful of eager writers? Would someone perhaps point out that the opening lines don't tell enough, don't grab enough, don't "do" enough?

What do you think?

And yet look at how these stories have endured.

In WATERSHIP DOWN, does it matter that after reading a vast novel full of war, death, and great upheaval, that the very last sentence of the book mentions the Primroses are blooming? Yes it does. Because it harkens back to that opening sentence, that sentence that someone might consider rather dry for an opener. The novel begins at the end of one thing, and ends at the beginning of another. Beautiful!

However. Those catchy "first line" workshops have merit, and they do have a point. Of course you want to draw your reader in. Of course you want a good opener. So let's look at some openings that are a bit more direct and speedy in drawing the reader into the story.

"Are you there, God? It's me, Margaret. We're moving today. I'm so scared, God. I've never lived anywhere but here."

---Judy Blume, ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET

"There is nothing lonelier than a cat who has been loved, at least for a while, and then abandoned on the side of the road."
---Kathi Appelt, THE UNDERNEATH

"I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster."
---Jeanette Walls, THE GLASS CASTLE

"When Mrs. Frederick C. Little's second son arrived, everybody noticed he was not much bigger than a mouse. The truth of the matter was, he looked like a mouse in every way."
---E.B. White, STUART LITTLE

"I didn't believe Pamela would ever die. She was too big, too mad, too furious for anything so shabby and easy as death. And for a few moments as she lay on the floor that day, I thought it was one of her jokes."
--Norma Fox Mazer, WHEN SHE WAS GOOD

"I used to be someone. Someone named Jenna Fox. That's what they tell me."
---Mary E. Pearson, THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX


You be the judge. Sure, some lines may be more grabby than others. Yet each of these novels are well known, and have all achieved critical acclaim.

So all I'm saying is, if you are staring at your first lines, and thinking, "they don't work. They don't grab. Therefore my book is doomed, it will never be published, it will never work, it will die right here in my living room, a pathetic manuscript," well...don't despair. And above all, do not waste precious drafting energy on agonizing over those first lines. Don't feel you have to fit a prescribed niche. Let your story dictate your opening. Be honest and true to your story, and then relax. Let your editor take it from there. If they need tweaking, your editor will help. Fantastic opening lines cannot save a dull story. Likewise, an amazing story will not be ignored by a publisher because the first line is not just right. Put your energy into the whole piece, and have faith.

Take a deep breath, understand there are no black and white rules here, and keep writing.

And come back tomorrow!