Opening Lines: The Good, The Bad, And The Goofy
October 27, 2013
Name the most famous opening sentence to a novel.
The first thing that comes to mind.
A sort of literary Rorschach inkblot test.
Oh, you could go with Moby “Call me Ishmael” Dick.
Or give me a Tale of Two Cities when “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Those two are usually at or near the top from popular fiction alongside Jane Austen, Kurt Vonnegut, Tolstoy, Nobokov and a list of classics as long as your arm. Now remember, I didn’t ask for the best sentences, I said famous. Which is why the one that is buried on every list (but you might grudgingly admit) has to be number one:
“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, …” and on and on and on. It’s the opening sentence that Snoopy made famous in the Charles Schulz comic strip. It’s the opening sentence from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford and the inspiration for a tongue-in-cheek international competition held each year to write “an opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” In other words, one that is deliberately bad.
So it’s Snoopy and the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (www.bulwer-lytton.com) that have made “It was a dark and stormy night…” famous. Not unlike the Kardashians or any of the other celebrities you don’t recognize on the covers of the gossip magazines as you stand in line at the grocery store checkout. They’re famous for, well, being famous and nothing more.
Full disclosure here: I won the contest in 1994, and for a year held the title as the “Worst Writer in America.” So you can see why I’ve always been fascinated with the role of the opening line. And, for better or worse, in the novels I’ve had published, and the manuscripts I’ve written but haven’t yet pushed onto an unsuspecting public, the opening line is usually the first thing that comes to me after being slapped upside the head by the general concept for the story. A good opening line compels me to move forward on the project. Without that, the story gets tossed into a file somewhere “for future reference.” And I doubt I could find that file today if you put a gun to my head or threatened to shut down the government if I didn’t produce it.
Google it. You’ll find a number of blogs and web sites that list the best opening lines. I like the top ten list from Lit Reactor (www.litreactor.com). I might disagree on several that made the list, but the blog’s author, Meredith Borders, explains her rationale for why each sentence works.
Not long ago I was re-reading Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. It’s the story of a degenerate writer named Grady Trip, an author of four novels who has turned to teaching a college-level creative writing course after his writing career goes south. He gets a peek at the opening to one of his students’ manuscript.
“There was no title page, no hint of authorship: simply the words THE LOVE PARADE at the top of the first sheet of paper, followed by the numeral 1, and then, to start the thing off,
On Friday afternoon his daddy handed him a hundred wrinkled one dollar bills and told him to buy himself a sport-jacket for the Homecoming Dance.
“Two characters, an occasion, in the wad of tired money a whisper of some long history of poverty and thrift, and, above all, a quirky human voice to hang the story on. It was hard to do more in a good first sentence.
“…Its second sentence read:
He rode the Greyhound over to Wilkes-Barre and spent the money on a pretty chrome gun.”
It’s the way Chabon, in the voice of his character Grady Tripp, broke down the sentence that struck me. I agree that opening was about as good as it gets. I had to remind myself that it was a fictional sentence in a fictional novel within a work of fiction. But I wanted to rush out and buy THE LOVE PARADE because it hooked me.
It doesn’t take a great opening sentence to make a great novel, but it sure doesn’t hurt. When was the last time you found one that made you stop with a jaw-dropping, great opening sentence? A quick check of my own library of novels that have been universally deemed “great”, and those that simply fell into my “favorites” category, turned up only a couple. And that was when I went looking for them
Blood and lust make the world go ’round, I say.
That’s the opening to my latest novel, The Patterer. It’s a parody of the modern TV news business set back in the 18th century. (Think Saturday Night Live meets Charles Dickens.) When I wrote it, I knew the character who was speaking and I knew what the story was about, but not much else. I knew that I liked it, but it wasn’t until long after the book was done and I went back and looked closely at that sentence, did I realize that I had, in my mind, anyway, unconsciously captured the theme and the tone of the story, and it basically set in motion everything that followed.
Blood and lust make the world go ’round, I say. Doesn’t knock your socks off? Yes, it’s not bad but it will never make the list of the best opening sentences in the history of literature. Still, it’s not the worst opening sentence. No, I wrote that back in 1994.
Larry Brill spent 25 years as a TV news anchor and reporter, picking up numerous awards along the way. After leaving the business in 2000 to set up a video and marketing consulting business, Larry penned his first novel, Live At Five, a gentle lampooning of the TV news business. His second novel The Patterer, carries the same theme back in time to explore how today’s news clichés might play to an 18th century London theater audience.
Visit the author at www.larrybrill.com
Please click the book cover image to read more about Larry Brill’s The Patterer.