Starting from the beginning

In Writing on April 5, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Two weeks from today I’ll be reading the first chapter of my novel, Alberija, at an event at the Brookline Public Library (event details here). In trying to decide what to read from the book, and ultimately deciding to start from the beginning, I got thinking about some of my favorite opening lines and what makes them so good.

Here are a few, some well-known, others not, that have stuck in my memory:

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. — Paul Auster, City of Glass

Mother died today. — Camus, The Stranger

I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man. — Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. — George Orwell, 1984

Like all men in Babylon, I have been proconsul; like all, a slave. — Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Lottery in Babylon’

This list could be longer, infinitely long even, because the number of great opening lines seems to roughly equal the number of great writers. That’s probably not a coincidence — the great writers are the ones we remember, and often our strongest memory of a story is the beginning. So how do these authors make their beginnings so memorable?

Some, like the example from Paul Auster’s City of Glass, reel us in by promising an intriguing plot; others, as with Camus and Doestoevsky, use seemingly straightforward statements to give us deep insight into the minds of their narrators — making us want to learn more about them. Others still, as at the opening of 1984 or ‘The Lottery in Babylon,’ introduce a story logic and a world so particular and so strange that we have no choice but to keep reading to get to the bottom of their seeming contradictions.

The approaches are all pretty different, but they do have a few things in common: they’re dense. They say much more — about the plot, the characters, and the world of the story — than what the sentences themselves signify. They launch us into the story and immediately get our minds turning, asking questions, seeking answers. We don’t just understand that the narrator’s mother has died at the beginning of The Stranger, we get a sense of how the narrator feels about it, how he views life. Then we ask: what will he do about it?

Opening lines also tell us what drives the story, whether character or plot or a particular ideology or philosophy. Readers like to know what they’re getting into as quickly as possible, and the first line, if written well, can tell them exactly that.

You can spend a lot of time writing and rewriting a first line — and you should. When you finally have a great first line, it makes it that much easier to write the second:

Mother died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.

What are some of your favorite opening lines? Comment below!


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