All of us here at Hatrack River know that, when submitting work for comment or critique, we are limited to the first 13 lines of the book/chapter in 12pt courier on letter sized paper. Btw, when are you Billy-Yanks going to go metric? Anyway, the reasons for this restriction are quite well known, although slightly anachronistic in the modern computer age. The task, as discussed on this site ad-nauseum, is to hook your prospective readers into turning the page after those paltry 13 lines and the approaches used are as varied as there are writers in the world; although there seem to be commonalities of approach that, for me, do not work.
These are: attempts to start in medias res (which some actually understand but most don’t) and with dialogue (usually a character asking another a question, or by exclaiming in surprise at some turn of event).
But, what if you were restricted to only one sentence, could you hook a reader in so completely that they are willing to wade through some rather heavy linguistic gymnastics before they get to the meat of the story? Let me share with you my three favourite first sentences and why I find them so alluring and want to learn how to write such sentences for my own works.
Call me Ishmael. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
It is my shame that I have to admit I have never read this book, but it’s now there at the top of my current reading list. It is possibly the shortest opening sentence I’ve ever heard of, and yet it is full of portent and hidden depths. Moby Dick is written, or should I say recounted, by a narrator who admits that his recounting may not be wholly reliable. But we already know that because the opening sentence immediately begs the questions, “Is that his name or isn’t it? Just who is the narrator and what’s his purpose?” A bit of web-searching reveals that the only other time the narrator is actually named is when he signs on as Ishmael to the Pequod. So we have his admission and his actions more than intimating that we are dealing with an unreliable narrator. But the point is that right at the outset the narrator is telling us he is unreliable by saying, “Call me Ishmael.” Instead of, “I am Ishmael.”
Then we have the biblical references relating to the name Ishmael. The name is an allusion to God’s promise to hear the complaints of Israel whenever it suffered at the hands of Ishmael (or his descendants). I have taken Melville’s use of the name Ishmael for his narrator to be an appeal to God to listen to the tale being told.
As I said, I haven’t read the story yet but, as soon as I have, I may have additional insights to share. That’s if anyone’s interested.
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
What can I say? There is the entire story, past, present and future all contained within a single sentence. It tells us who the main character is, where he is and what his problem is -- what he wants and can’t get and what will resolve the problem -- and all in 25 words.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Now, that’s one long sentence. In my writing youth, only a few short months ago, I had dared to announce on my blog that I would be prepared to edit that down a tad. Just a tad. But that was before I knew any better.
What Mr Dickens is doing with this paragraph long sentence, and the sentences that follow, is to firmly set the age and place the reader inside it. Not the scene, not the atmosphere, but what Thomas Paine would call The Age of Reason – which wasn’t all that reasonable. It’s also a comparison of that Age with the present Age, not his, but ours. At least that’s my modern take on it. And that’s what makes it timeless for me. The prose of that sentence can be transposed onto today’s society. “It is the best of times, it is the worst of times . . .”
Do you have a favourite opening sentence, or three, and why?
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
Such a vivid image, and sets the bleak tone of the novel perfectly. The moment I read that first line, I was hooked, and there was no way I wasn't finishing that book.
Posts: 1412 | Registered: Dec 2003
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As I've said before...good first lines are a lot of fun, but I've never bought a book because of the first line.
Aside from that...
"I guess, just as with the Kennedy assassination, everybody can remember exactly where he was and what he was doing on the day the space people brought Jesus back to Earth." ---Frederik Pohl, "The Second Coming."
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Hey, Grumpy--aren't those both tragic? Or is there something funny in the Irish stereotype I'm missing?
Strictly speaking, axeminister, Gibson's quote is not a metaphor because it doesn't say it *is* the TV, it says it's the *color of* the TV. Unless we say that colors themselves are metaphors, which could be the case if it were used that way, but it's just description here.
For example, we could say: He was the color red. Hot tempered and bright, he demanded attention and radiated danger. That's a metaphor. But if we say: His face was the color of apples, we are neither likening him to apples or to the color red in a metaphorical way.
Posts: 394 | Registered: May 2006
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The Gibson cite is an analogy, closer to simile than metaphor, though metaphoric language, though neither precisely simile or metaphor. Prescriptively, the rhetorical figure trope is metalepsis: Analogy "[r]eference to something by means of another thing that is remotely related to it, either through a farfetched causal relationship, or through an implied intermediate substitution of terms. Often used for comic effect through its preposterous exaggeration." (Silva Rhetoricae)
The Irish parachute ad joke relies on schadenfredue's dry wit for humor effect: "enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others" (Webster's 11th). There but for the grace of Providence go I, plummeted into the ground, if I buy and use the faulty parachute for its intended purpose. That's just my luck.
Gaelic, Celtic, and Teutonic, at least, humor sensibilities obtain enjoyment from others' troubles as they personally relate to the auditor of others' troubles. Tragic irony is in both Hemingway's and the Irish classified ad, nonetheless; however, no schadenfreude in the Hemingway ad, unless one may obtain enjoyment from the untimely disappointments of never worn baby shoes.
Oh, I wasn't at all making a point about stereotypes--I was genuinely seeking to remedy my ignorance so I could get the funny.
It may be that the lingering tragedy of the Hemingway line simply altered my composure in a way ill-conducive to appreciating the surprise factor and the humor of the Irish ad.
Posts: 394 | Registered: May 2006
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+1 on the Old Man and the Sea and Moby Dick.
Another one of my favorites is from The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.
"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."
I like this line because it is a statement of fact, and intriguing. As of late, I've grown fed up with the countless experts only too willing to prescribe formulae for plots, structure and opening lines. So, this is a refreshing topic, a nice confirmation that our best examples are readily available.
Posts: 127 | Registered: Aug 2012
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kmsf, they are indeed. Readily available best examples, I mean. For me, the best teacher for how to start a story is the books you already have in your library. You chose them for a reason, so how they begin will give you a good insight into the 'style' of opening you like. And, as they have been published, they work in the commercial world as well. Ignore the torpedo's . . .
"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." -- Wait, we're supposed to understand that?
"It was a dark and stormy night." -- Madeleine L'engle being saucy in *A Wrinkle in Time*, not the unspeakable *Paul Clifford*!
"Call me Ishmael." -- Not sure where the magic comes from in this one. Maybe its the way the narrator seems to be answering a question you posed.
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." -- Way to paint the narrator's attitude, Jane.
"PEOPLE DO not give it credence that a fourteen year-old girl could leave home and go off in wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day." -- Clever way to frame the story; it's an elderly narrator telling us a story of long ago.
"Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin." -- It's funny because it's true.
"Everything begins somewhere, although many physicists disagree." -- For some reason only Pratchett gets away with this kind of thing.
"In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines." -- it's the way this line straddles poetry and speaking...
"There was once a boy named Milo who didn't know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always." -- another funny because it's true opening. We know Milo.
OK, so there's lots of great opening lines. That said, I think the idea of searching for an opening line that will hook is a bad one. I think the idea of looking for a gimmick that will hook the reader in 13 lines or 1 page or 5000 words is a bad idea.
It's not that I'm against hooking; if lighting strikes go with it. It's that I can tell the difference between inspiration and desperation. I know if you're baiting me with a gimmick because you think I don't want to read your MS.
I'd rather you show confidence and self-respect. So just tell the story. Tell it well. Tell it in an interesting voice. That's enough to hold my interest for a few thousand words, and that's enough to launch the story.
If inspiration gives you a gift, then take that gift. But it doesn't give you that particular gift, then don't fake it. That's like hanging up valentines you've sent to yourself.
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