I’ve been thinking about the first lines of novels and stories for a while now. Even though my professors in undergraduate literature classes stressed how everything you needed to know was right there in that first page or paragraph or sentence, it’s something, largely, I ignored. It wasn’t that I didn’t value them: I just didn’t give them any thought. That is until I started trading stories with Jeff Minton, an up and coming fiction writer and fellow professor.
The first thing I noticed about his stories was that I was immediately and irrevocably hooked from the first sentence. (Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, since Jeff received honorable mention from Glimmer Train during one of their contests.) I wondered to myself what it was that Jeff was doing, what magic did he put in his words, and why, when I looked back at my own fiction, did all my openings seem dry and boring by comparison?
It’s a question that came up just this last week at a writer’s workshop. We were sitting around the table, discussing one of the pieces, when I mentioned the first line of this novel in progress. It was the typical “the sky was this color today,” and no one else seemed to question it. Even before I had read anything Jeff had written, I knew enough not to start by describing the weather. I asked the most obvious question: Why? Why start with that? What was it doing for the narrative? What did it contribute? Besides, isn’t it clichéd?
One of the other attendees was quick to challenge me, pointing to William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which begins, “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Now while I pride myself on being the dumbest guy in the room, I’m not too dumb to see the difference. It didn’t take long for my adversary to see the folly either. Obviously, describing the bland orange of the sky versus some crazy ass shit is a big difference.
You know, I just got a copy of the latest Boulevard, and as soon as I laid my hands on it, I flipped through the pages and read the first lines of all the pieces of short fiction. Here’s one of them: “It was actually a joint multidisciplinary seminar undertaken by English, Philosophy, Women’s Issues and Paraplegic Studies” (Barbarese 80). Now I get there’s that winking sense of irony by the end of that first sentence, but really, who the fuck cares? What about that line makes me want to read further? Maybe I’m not the intended audience. Maybe this is aimed at academics who get a chuckle out of their own absurdity.
Here’s another: “He shared the room with no one in the New River Barracks” (Dow 133). While I get a little bit of a sense of the character’s isolation and loneliness, any interest I have is immediately gone when I read the following line: “In the room a car battery was hooked up with wires to an automobile tape player…. His shift would begin in an hour” (Dow 133).
Now call me an asshole, but neither of these stories’s openings really do anything for me. And the funny thing is that neither of these writers are amateurs. One has publications (poetry) in The Atlantic and The New Yorker, and the other was in The Best American Poetry. So maybe readers will stick around based on name and reputation alone.
I guess everyone is guilty of it, even the greats. DeLillo starts his masterful novel Cosmopolis with “Sleep failed him more often now, not once or twice a week but four times, five” (1). (And don’t get me started on the first chapter of The Body Artist.) Now again, there’s something of interest, a hint of a problem, but it’s not the central question of the novel, not the great quest that Packer sets out on, holds no kernel of what we as the reader will eventually find. In truth, it’s a lot of boring exposition–about some multi-billionaire who spends his time reading poetry and listening to classical music in his private elevator. (I guess because that’s what DeLillo does or wants to do.) If you ask me, the novel would have been a hell of a lot better without. In fact, I know the point of attack, the moment that I said to myself, “Now I’m interested”: “He didn’t know what he wanted. Then he knew. He wanted to get a haircut” (5).
Of course, by now, you must be wondering, what’s the secret? And I’ll tell you: Great openings have to introduce a problem.
Meville is probably one of the best examples, though you have to be familiar with the Bible to get it: “Call me, Ishmael.” Why is this one so good? Because we know something about the character in three words. With that one allusion, the narrator tells us that he has adopted this name, that it’s not who he is but who he has become. He, like the biblical character, has spent or will spend those 40 years (or is it days–and why is everything in the Bible 40? Because it’s an old way of saying a lot) in the desert adrift. He is a bastard child. He is the outcast child, punished only for the circumstances of his birth. I’d say that’s one hell of a problem.
Here’s another classic, this time from Fitzgerald: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.'” In two sentences, we’re told that our narrator wants to be a nice guy, but then, throughout the entire book, all he does is judge people. He just never does it to their faces. Again, wanting to be a nice guy but having to think about it, that’s a problem.
Here’s one more: “Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn.” This one is probably the most mundane, but it’s great for what it implies, what’s underneath the surface. Our narrator and protagonist, Jake Barnes, gives us a portrait of a man he more or less despises. Why? Because Cohn thinks he’s hot shit, but Barnes sees right through him–and knows he could kick his ass. (A side note about the novel: That first page is even more brilliant since Barnes goes on to tell us that Cohn was “treated like a Jew at Princeton,” pretty much telling us that even though he thinks Cohn is a prick, he’s a prick because he’s a prick and not because he’s a jew–discrimination Barnes finds both sorrowful and pitiful.) One last time, in case you missed, there’s a problem: Two people who don’t see eye-to-eye.
So really, what’s the point of all this? First lines don’t exist in some vacuum of cleverness. They aren’t some bullshit hook. (Have you ever blah blah blahed?) They shouldn’t be trying to build some lame ass fantasy or sci-fi setting. (Just look at Startship Troopers for an example: “I always get the shakes before a drop.”) First lines lay out the rest of the story in such a way that if the rest of the paragraphs were accidentally deleted, you could still imagine the rest of the story. They have to infect everything that follows. They have to present that burning problem at the center of the work. Sure, they can bookend a work so there’s a nice little parallel between beginning and end, to show how much your character has grown by the story’s, but that’s more advanced shit that’s not always required. It’s not just the intrigue. It’s not the question of what happens next. It’s that moment when you say, “There’s something wrong here.” And it doesn’t have to be huge either. Not everything needs that flashbang open. Life isn’t a James Bond movie. Even, I doubt, real MI6 agents have that kind of life. Art is, as Hitchcock said, life with the boring parts cut out. Cut out the boring parts and start with a problem. Of course, now there’s the only problem left to solve: How the fuck do you do it?