Thursday, August 01, 2019

Opening Lines, Opening Questions

Thomas Kies’s terrific post about opening lines this week got me thinking. As I commented on his post, first lines mean a lot to me –– as a writer and reader.

What makes a good opening line? Students, journalists, fiction writers, poets –– everyone –– wants to engage the reader immediately. People speak often about the “hook.” But I’ve never thought of opening lines that way. To me, the goal of a first line is to have the reader face a question that requires an answer –– at some point. And as a reader, I certainly want an opening that poses one or more questions.

Consider these gems:

“The marvelous thing is that it’s painless," he said. "That's how you know when it starts." (“The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” by Ernest Hemingway)

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon. (The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley)

It had seemed like a good idea at the time. (“Nine Lives to Live” by Sharon McCrumb)

The old lady had changed her mind about dying but by then it was too late. (City of Bones by Michael Connelly)

Two short stories and two novels. All four opening lines ask questions of me (the reader). Hemingway’s opening is legendary. All make me continue reading. And no matter your method of writing –– whether you plan everything in advance or fly by the seat of your pants –– the opening can (and, in my humble opinion, should) pose a question.

It has become a classroom writing activity for my students: Write down five opening lines that require readers to ask one (or more) question. Then take the most compelling opening line (presumably the one that forces you –– the writer –– to answer an interesting question). And write for twenty minutes, seeing where that line leads you.

All of this got me thinking about the novel I’m writing now. I went back to check the first line, making sure I’m praying what I preach. Here it is: Ellie Whitney saw the hesitation and waited for Pam Rush to make her choice.

What do you think?


Anna said...

Who or what is hesitating? Let us know right away.

Would you consider this construction: Ellie Whitney saw Pam Rush hesitate and waited for Pam to make her choice.

Or change "and" to "but" to build in a hint of Ellie's controlled impatience.

Lots of good material here; I just can't resist tinkering!

Roland Clarke said...

But not knowing who hesitates would make me read on, Anna.