Grand Openings: Make Them an Offer They Can’t Refuse.
“The last thing one discovers in composing a work is what to put first.”
…Blaise Pascal. Pensées
Before you lies a blank page and all you can fill it with is dread! There is a reason for this, of course, beyond fear of failure or success or being exposed as the frauds we secretly suspect we are. A reason driven into us like slivers beneath our fingernails: capture your audience in the first line – first paragraph, at most – or all is lost.
And there is certainly truth in that. When we send our literary progeny out into the world, they land under the bleary eyes of overworked agents, editors, and publishers. If we do not grab their interest at the start, they will not bother slogging through the ensuing 300 pages, no matter how profound or beautifully written. That is just the way of the world. So we have to give them cause to sit up, rub their eyes, and say, “Hmmm!”
How do we manage such a monumental undertaking? It helps to have a grasp of the forms and purposes to which opening lines are put, then you can choose which works best for your tale. There are essentially five – or six, depending on how one merges and melds – options for opening lines.
• The universal truth. From Tolstoy to Rushdie, this can be a very appealing way to start a story. It sets the tone and gives the reader an aphoristic notion of the world their about to explore:
“To be born again,” sang Gibeel Farishta tumbling from the heavens,
first you must die.” (S. Rushdie, Satanic Verses)
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”
(Z.N.Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God ).
• The factual opening. This comes in a several variations:
1) The simple lone fact that carries the weight of the story, as Isak Dinesen’s opening for Out of Africa, “I had a farm in Africa.” Simple, to the point, and the reader knows what follows will be related to that fact.
2) A simple fact laced with subtle significance. This is often used in mysteries (Agatha Christie loved this approach), where a fact can be dropped in at the start only to become clear as the story unfolds. In this category, I would also include such classic openings as Melville’s “Call me Ishmael.” – which invokes a Biblical narrative that at first blush seems out of place in a whale tale, but is absolutely central, and the opening of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Oh so simple, oh so layered.
3) Finally, there is the combined facts: an opening line that takes two fact, not terribly interesting alone, but enticing when put together. In The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers uses this to great effect: “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” Now that intrigues.
• There is the opening that establishes the narrative voice, as in Catcher in the Rye, Lolita, or most anything by James Joyce:
“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…” (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)
• If setting and atmosphere are central to your telling, an opening can establish mood. While “It was a dark and stormy night…” springs to mind as a clichéd example of this, I prefer something less obvious, like Ford Maddox Ford:
“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” (The Good Soldier)
To me that is one of the greatest opening lines ever written. It not only sets the mood for the entire book, but also hints at volumes about the narrator, John Dowell and his tangled relationship with the Ashburnhams.
• Finally, a first line can frame your story in time and place. This is the “Once upon a time” approach and tells the reader that what they are about to encounter is, in some way or another, beyond the realm of the familiar:
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
(L.P.Hartley, The Go-Between)
Where a novel demands much of its first line – and consequently, the first line of each chapter that follows – a short story, by virtue of its brevity, demands even more. Most notably, consider letting the reader know whose story you are telling and why they should care. I don’t mean this in a pedantic, cudgel-to-the-head sort of way. Be deft and subtle as your craft allows.
As a rule, do not muddle your opening with exposition – unless your exposition brings tears to Stoic eyes and nightmares to febrile sleep. In this same vein, avoid literary small talk about the weather or the scenery or your protagonist’s designer ensemble. Tenets of modern creative writing suggest that a short story start with a definitive action and following such advice will usually serve you well. Of course, I am not one to be bound by tenets it they do not suit.
In the end, novel or flash fiction, test your opening rigorously. Step outside of yourself. Read your work as if you were a stranger, flipping through a plenitude of volumes in the bookstore. Would you linger, reading page after page until the proprietor insists, “We’re not a lending library!” then check your pockets to see if you have enough cash for your treasure? Or would you yawn and set it aside?
A final thought: sometimes first lines drop onto the page, ripe and fully formed as Newton’s apple, and sometimes they are as hard to find as hen’s teeth in a haystack. If your opening does not flow from your pen like liquid gold first time off, do not fall into scrivener’s paralysis. As Pascal said, we don’t always know what comes at the beginning until we get to the end. And, while we may not all be able to pen classics like “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” we should never let that stop us from striving to be captivating from first word to last.