Wednesday, July 31, 2013

On Opening Sentences (Part One)

ISBN-10: 1781162646 ISBN-13: 9781781162644 Published: Hard Case Crime, 06/04/2013 Pages: 288 Language: English
I'm going to have start giving the good folks over at the Slate Culture Gabfest a royalty check (what's 15 percent of 0 dollars?) for inspiring yet another blog entry with their discussion of great opening sentences, a discussion inspired in turn by a fantastic piece on the Atlantic: Why Stephen King Spends 'Months and Even Years' Writing Opening Sentences. In keeping with his pulpy roots and the crime fiction genre that he explores in his new novel, Joyland, many of his favorite opening lines featured in the article were penned by the likes of Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain. King not only has great taste, but is able to parse out exactly why a seemingly simple opening line such as: "They threw me off the hay truck about noon" (from The Postman Always Rings Twice) is the stuff of genius. Here's his concluding paragraph:

"A book won't stand or fall on the very first line of prose -- the story has got to be there, and that's the real work. And yet a really good first line can do so much to establish that crucial sense of voice -- it's the first thing that acquaints you, that makes you eager, that starts to enlist you for the long haul. So there's incredible power in it, when you say, come in here. You want to know about this. And someone begins to listen."

King focuses on establishing voice above all else, but there are many great opening lines that have other aims. On Slate's podcast, Julia Turner loosely separates great opening lines into these categories (to which I have appended relevant quotes):

"A couple of these books start with generalizations about life and the world... aphorisms. Jane Austen and Anna Karenina, they're both sort of 'let me establish my authority as a teller of stories about humans by starting with some wry observation about the nature of humankind.'"

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way (Tolstoy)."

"Then there's super-telling detail about character..."

"Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself (Woolf)."

"Then there's the kind of meta-opening, like Huck Finn or like the David Copperfield, which is 'let's acknowledge we're at the beginning of a yarn here and what my relationship is to it and what your relationship to it is going to be."

"You don't know about me without you have read a book called "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," but that ain't no matter (Twain)."

"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show (Dickens)."

"Then there's the Hamlet-- there's the kind of picayune detail that turns out to contain the massive multitudes of the entire story within its compressed little phrase..."

"Who's there? (Shakespeare)."

"Call me Ishmael (Melville)."

This is by no means a complete taxonomy, but I thought it was an interesting starting point. For further reading, I would suggest another article from The Atlantic where famous authors are asked to give their favorite opening sentences. There are plenty you might expect, but also some wonderful surprises, such as the opening line of Charlotte's Web:

"'Where's Papa going with that axe?' said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast (E. B. White)."

Naturally I have a few favorites of my own, but I've decided to save those for a dubiously necessary Part Two. In the mean time, dear reader, what are some of your favorite opening sentences?"

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