Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The first line is key

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
Stephen King--The Gunslinger

Whenever I'm looking for a new book to read, I often base a purchase decision on how quickly the first page hooks me. Of course, this doesn't always work out, but generally it's been a pretty good method for finding new authors and works. Even more important than a strong first page, however, is a very strong first line. This is the author's very first chance to give you an idea of what the following story is about, and to do it in a few simple words. The first line should give you a sense of the ride on which you are about to embark. The line quoted above is perhaps the best first line of a novel that I've read. Immediately, with only twelve words, King introduces the reader to the main character, his occupation and enemy, and starts a long list of questions running through the reader's head. Who is the man in black? Why is this gunslinger following him? All questions will come to be in answered in the course of an enthralling read. Here's another example:

Nothing ever begins.
Clive Barker--Weaveworld

That's it. Three simple words, but as the story unfolds, you realize that those three words are incredibly apt in giving you a sense of the tale. Here's one more:

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.
Donna Tartt--The Secret History

Again, a very succinct and basically vague sentence, but there is so much potential leading into the novel that follows. Why this focus on first lines, you ask? I aspire to write stories of my own. I've never been very good at it, simply because I'm terrible at creating a solid throughline. I'm good at snippets and phrases, but I find the continuation of a plot extremely difficult. That, and I'm lazy. But I often find, even for my brief dalliances in writing, that if I can start with a solid first line, it gives me jumping off points from which to write. If I can write a strong first line, it forces me to ask myself questions related to that line. It's in finding the answers to those questions that I often find my plot. Stephen King, in his "how to" book On Writing, compares the act of writing to the unearthing of a buried artifact. You don't always see the entire shape of the thing at first, but the little pieces you do see allow you to extrapolate the overall view. As I continue to write, more questions are asked, more answers found, and so on until a cohesive plot is formed.

Again, you might wonder why the focus on this particular subject. I've been thinking of trying my hand at another short story, just to get back into the process of writing, but as usual I've been having difficulty with finding a solid plot. So I started trying to come up with a good first line, something from which I could build as I go. And today, unbidden, a line popped in my head. It still feels clunky and rough, but I think it has potential to lead me into a humorous and entertaining story. Ready?

Preston became aware that his frequent ill-timed erections were somewhat of a roadblock on the path to righteousness.
Bill Chandler--Fledgling story idea

So there it is. Hopefully this line can lead me into an exploration of who Preston is, why he wants to be righteous, and, most importantly, what's up with those erections. I'll try to remember to post updates, if anything comes of this.

6 Comments:

Blogger Jess said...

I have been wanting to read that Donna Tartt book. I have her 2nd novel at home (Half-Price Books dollar section, baby!) but I haven't started it yet, either. Now I'm even more intrigued.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Babs said...

'To be born again,' sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, 'first you have to die....

-- Salman Rushdie, "Satanic Verses"

9:04 AM  
Blogger Babs said...

"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."

-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, "100 Years of Solitude"

9:07 AM  
Blogger The Bagboy said...

Nice ones Babs. I've actually heard that Marquez one quoted in reference to this very subject.

And Diva, you should definitely read The Secret History. It's a little slow at first, but once you get into it, it really wraps you up.

9:21 AM  
Anonymous jamie said...

I do the same, Bill!!

A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving: "I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice-- not because of his voice, or because he was smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument in my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."

Also, Jitterbug Perfume, Tom Robbins: The Citadel was dark, and the heroes were sleeping. When they breathed, it sounded as if they were testing the air for dragon smoke."

And the Golden Compass, Philip Pullman: "Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen."

I could go on, but I won't bore you. Great topic.

10:31 AM  
Anonymous Rockstar Fury said...

I got into Octavia E. Butler that way as a teenager. It's speculative fiction, but give her a shot anyway.

Start with "Wild Seed"

11:08 AM  

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