MICHELLE W. one of our editors, shared two (2) posts to help during the second week of Writing 201 [2014 edition](I’m not good at all with manual reblogging so I was unable to reblog the comments. Why? My gravatar kept showing up in odd places! So I had to remove all the comments):
This week’s workshop included lots of great first lines from fiction, with a smattering of non-fiction. For some more real-life inspiration, check out these opening lines from some other true stories.
The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.”
— Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.
— Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar
Call me Ishmael. I won’t answer to it, because it’s not my name, but it’s much more agreeable than most of the things I’ve been called.
— Jenny Lawson, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened
In a damp fourteen-by-twenty foot laboratory in Boston on a December morning in 1947, a man named Sidney Farber waited impatiently for the arrival of a parcel from New York.
— Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies
When I was a very little child, oh, about six or seven, I had a habit of walking down Walnut and Copeland streets; you know those streets.
— John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers
My father always struck me as the sort of man who under the right circumstances might have invented the microwave oven or transistor radio.
— David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day
The date: 1902. The place: Harmony Church, Missouri, a tiny dot-on-the-map town located on a floodplain a hundred miles from Kansas City. Our young protagonist: a good-natured but insecure high school student named Dale.
— Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
Stephen King spends “months, even years” writing an opening sentence. In this piece from The Atlantic, he explains why he thinks the first line is worth that investment (hint: it’s the Big Question) and shares one one of his favorites:
There are all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good opening line. It’s tricky thing, and tough to talk about because I don’t think conceptually while I work on a first draft — I just write. To get scientific about it is a little like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar.
But there’s one thing I’m sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.
How can a writer extend an appealing invitation — one that’s difficult, even, to refuse?
With really good books, a powerful sense of voice is established in the first line. My favorite example is from Douglas Fairbairn’s novel, Shoot, which begins with a confrontation in the woods. There are two groups of hunters from different parts of town. One gets shot accidentally, and over time tensions escalate. Later in the book, they meet again in the woods to wage war — they re-enact Vietnam, essentially. And the story begins this way:
“This is what happened.”
For me, this has always been the quintessential opening line. It’s flat and clean as an affidavit. It establishes just what kind of speaker we’re dealing with: someone willing to say, I will tell you the truth. I’ll tell you the facts. I’ll cut through the bullshit and show you exactly what happened. It suggests that there’s an important story here, too, in a way that says to the reader: and you want to know.
A line like “This is what happened,” doesn’t actually say anything — there’s zero action or context — but it doesn’t matter. It’s a voice, and an invitation, that’s very difficult for me to refuse. It’s like finding a good friend who has valuable information to share. Here’s somebody, it says, who can provide entertainment, an escape, and maybe even a way of looking at the world that will open your eyes. In fiction, that’s irresistible. It’s why we read.
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.
“Why Stephen King Spends ‘Months and Even Years’ Writing Opening Sentences,” The Atlantic, July 2013.