The Indelible Magic of the Memorable Opening Line
“It was a dark and stormy night.”
Who isn’t familiar with that famous first line? Not from its original source, Edward Bulwer-Lyttonbut’s 19th century novel, Paul Clifford, but from its frequent use by the cartoon character Snoopy, as he perpetually struggles over the writing of his novel.
As he types it out time after time, we share Snoopy’s angst (and that of his creator, Charles Shultz) over the challenge all writers face, and a laugh at the poignancy of his position. One of my favorite strips on this theme is the one where Linus tells Snoopy, “Your new novel has a very exciting beginning…good luck with the second line.”
A first line must set the tone. It must intrigue. It must make the reader think. It must usher the reader into that “uninterrupted dream” that a good work of fiction creates. It must be memorable.
In 2006 the American Book Review put together a list of the best first lines in western literature. And there are some truly great ones on there; from Jane Austin (“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” from Pride and Prejudice) to Toni Morrison (“They shoot the white girl first,” from Paradise). Here are a few of my own recent favorites:
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” - Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex.
“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” - Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups
“Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last” - Sena Jeter Naslund, Ahab's Wife
“When I was little I used to think of ways to kill my daddy” - Kaye Gibbons, Ellen Foster
All of them grab the reader right away. “Hook” is the word often used to describe the impact that a good first line has on the reader, but I prefer the notion of intrigue; it’s subtler, softer, a little hypnotic. Each of these openers succeeds because they plant a question and set a tone that draws the reader in.
I just read the first posthumously published short story by Dashiell Hammett that appeared in the magazine, The Strand, last month. The first line?
“And so I shot him.”
Wow. Talk about intrigue.
My latest novel, Heart of Deception, opens in Tangier early during World War II. Men fought over the possession of Tangier for millennia because of its strategic location on the northwest corner of Africa. The payoff was huge, but the price of victory was always high. It was a place of remarkable beauty and staggering corruption; the perfect setting for a novel about people who must deceive others to survive, and along the way end up also deceiving themselves.
Reading about the city’s history, I began to picture it as a sort of old-world, 16th century courtesan; the kind of woman who knew her worth and made men pay for it dearly. It’s a distasteful way to make a living, but there’s also something oddly admirable about such a woman’s ability to achieve a measure of success despite her circumstances. Nonetheless, it’s success built on moral turpitude, an inherently unsound foundation, the perfect metaphor for the city.
So this is how the book opens:
“If the city of Tangier had been a woman, she would have been a whore, and a wealthy one.”
Because sometimes, “It was a dark and stormy night” just won’t work.
For more on author M.L. Malcolm visit: http://mlmalcolm.com/