Analyzing the Opening Line

A good first line to a novel can be a piece of original philosophy or observation:

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

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Or it could be a simple self-introduction:

“Call me Ishmael.” —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie.” —Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones

Or it could be an odd description of a scene that takes the reader off guard:

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

“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” —Samuel Beckett, Murphy

“A screaming comes across the sky.” —Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” —William Gibson, Neuromancer

Or it can break the forth wall:

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.” —Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.” —Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler

“I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.” —W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge

It could be a brilliant example of “show, don’t tell”:

“With a strength born of the decision that had just come to her in the middle of the night, Avery Johnson forced the suitcase shut on the clothes piled inside and slid the lock in place.” —Paule Marshall, Praisesong for the Widow

Or it could be, “To hell with it, let’s just tell”:

“It was a pleasure to burn.” —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Or it could be “show” without an obvious underlying “don’t tell”.

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” —Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford

The bottom line is that nobody ever designs his first line. With all the books on writing in publication, it seems nobody has categorized opening lines by type (I think there are about a dozen, give or take), or analyzed what elements make a good opening line. Every writer, it appears, channels his or her muse and tries to come up with an opening line in the same way a poet might compose a poem.

But if there is one part of the novel that is open to analytical dissection, it is the first few sentences. The purpose of the opening line is well defined: It is to capture the attention of the reader and to draw him into the story. It must also open up the story world and lure the reader into the establishing passage.

In other words, an opening line can be calculated. It does not have to be spontaneous poetry.  So what does an opening line need? It does not always need to paint a picture. But it does usually convey an emotion. “My name… like the fish”. An April day being bright and cold. The sun shining on the nothing new.

It also presents contrasting ideas. “It was a pleasure to burn” contrasts “pleasure” and “burn”, the latter is an act of destruction, not usually associated with pleasure. In fact, “pleasure” is not a word you are most likely to associate with the word “burn” which is one of the synonyms for “pain”. A good opening line also project a sense of mystery. Why is it a pleasure to burn? What is being burnt and who is burning it? Or what compelled Avery Johnson to pack a suitcase? Where is she going and what is she leaving? Even the most static description of a sky “the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” carries a sense of mystery. But there is also an ominous resonance of ill fate. When you line up the words “sky” and “dead”, and use “dead” to describe the heavens, you feel something evil is creeping up.

Barbara Baig and Ursula Le Guin instruct us to find word associations, and build up a vocabulary rich with interconnected words. But in the opening sentences, we are much more likely to find “anti-word-associations”. “It was a pleasure to burn”.

Conventional, that is to say non-contradiction, word associations also play a role. “Call me Ishmael” could not have worked if it were “call me Bob” or “call me Joe”. It is the Old Testament name, the lone illegitimate son torn from his biological mother to be raised by Abraham’s wife, soon to be kicked off his position once a legitimate son is born, the desolate survivor, that gives the simple sentence an ominous tone. (And of course readers of Melville’s time all knew the Bible.)

There are other elements, of course.

“Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.”  —George Eliot, Middlemarch

Who said “show, don’t tell” applies only to emotions? The above opening sentence not only describes Miss Brooke without telling us what she looks like, but indirectly “shows” us (without “telling”) what a male reaction would be to the sight of her.

Director Alexander Mackendrick once said “What a movie director really directs is the audience’s attention.” The author sometimes does the same. When a woman is suddenly introduced in the first line, what quality of that woman are we supposed to notice? This subtle direction is one of the reasons why so many modern feminists find old books sexist. How else can a modern woman feel when the author mesmerizes your eyes with the line “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”? But then again, nobody would be offended if Nobokov did not do it so well. “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.” You feel Humbert Humbert’s sick, obsessed gaze creeping into your own eyes. This is deliberate hypnosis.

The opening of a book is the hook, the line, and the sinker. The hook provides the catch, the line provides the tension, and the sinker provides the direction.

Consider Ralph Ellison:

“I am an invisible man.” (Hook!) “No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edger Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind” (Line). “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (Sinker). Then he continues, “Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus side shows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed anything and everything except me.” By this point, the hypnosis has kicked in, and your attention is unmistakably directed at the invisible man.

So the first line conveys emotions, presents conflicting word associations, projects a sense of mystery, echoes omens, and is the “hook” of the “hook, line, and sinker” that directs the reader’s attention.

How do you write a line like that?

Let me try. I will start with a random word. There is a bottle of cologne on my desk so I will start with “cologne”. An anti-association to that would be “stench”. The thesaurus is not very helpful. Under the heading of “stench” there are “foul odor”, “smell”, “stink”, “fetor”, “funk”, “malodor”, “redolence”, etc. Throw in some ill omens and mystery, and let me conjure a random sentence.

“The sun set over the forest of blood-stained spears, and flooded warm light across the scattering of battle-worm armor perfumed with death and victory.”

Nope. Too long and too informative.
How about:

“The warm light of the sunset flooded over discarded armor and spears perfumed with death and glory.”

Better, but still too long.

“The warm sun set over the stench of death and the perfume of glory.”

Not quite there yet.

“The sun set warm over the aroma of death and the stench of glory.”

Much better.

“The sun set warm over the stench of glory.”



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