A panicky twist in my gut-brain demanded that I stop and go back.
It’s essential here, too.
“Revise!” bellowed my pie-in-the-sky writer bits at my pragmatic bits, the ones that just want to finish things.
So, I wrote the above three lines. The first and third are way more interesting than the second, but my pragmatic bits are winning now and I have to go on without massaging number two.
Those first five words, though, they can change the world. Or really not.
No matter the medium, an opening sentence is rife with peril. And here at the end of 2022, when we have all developed the attention span of pre-pubescent squirrels, our jeopardy is greater than ever.
There are so many things to read, so much to listen to, so many media in full-contact competition for our attention that the first line of a song, poem, short story, essay, or novel is maybe as far as anyone will ever get.
In a 2013 interview in The Altantic, Stephen King said, “… for me, a good opening sentence really begins with voice. You hear people talk about “voice” a lot, when I think they really just mean “style.” Voice is more than that. People come to books looking for something. But they don’t come for the story, or even for the characters. They certainly don’t come for the genre. I think readers come for the voice.”*
I don’t tend to go for Stephen King novels, but I think his short stories are great, and he certainly knows how to draw in a reader, especially now that his work is ubiquitous and a deservedly fickle public is now looking for reasons not to read him.
A nobody like me needs a first sentence that positively sings like the first cardinal after a long winter. And I need it in a novel, a query, a synopsis, a blog, anything that I might hope someone might read, because NOBODY will go past the first five words otherwise.
And what King says about voice is key, because what readers need is to hear a feeling with those first words. It’s not a style that your rational deconstructing brain can unpack so much as the sound of the words and the place they take you.
I wrote these opening sentences for a novel a couple of years ago.
Enlightenment dwelt in a borrowed brick house on Avenue Road, steps from the managed landscapes and obedient flowerbeds of The Regent’s Park. Most days, a bland workaday parade of foot traffic and an occasional horse and carriage passed outside, thoroughly oblivious to the opportunity for illumination nearby, to say nothing of the need for it in these or any times.
I still like them. They take me to a recognizable place, London when horses and carriages were common, and to a context when people may have cared about enlightenment. Both ideas were important, as it’s a historical novel with an undercurrent of mysticism.
It goes on, as novels tend to do.
On the other side of the ruddy masonry walls of number 19, though, efforts had been made to satisfy a visitor’s need for guidance. A weeks-long succession of tradesmen had been shooed away early, their work renovating the house paused, at least for the day. In their place were mysticism and esoteric discourse personified by the wild-haired, grey-eyed woman holding court.
And in those few sentences, my intent was to sink the reader into a comfy chair and settle in for a character-driven period piece with a twist. That’s the voice.
No one wanted to read it, to say nothing of publishing it, so either it didn’t work the way I intended or the rest of it was rubbish. Doesn’t really matter as all you can do is try again.
So, in my latest work, I have spent some days and weeks writing and revising a lengthy collection of opening sentences, a product of two decisions. The first was that I needed to get the novel out to beta readers, and the second was that this particular chapter would be the first that a reader would see.
It happened to be the first chapter I wrote, and that’s more a coincidence than some people might think. Everything else quite literally came after.
The first broken window gave the crowd a taste for enterprise, and soon the driver, a scab, was chased away, pursued by laughter and jeers as the multitude began a concerted effort to topple the huge vehicle.
So, that was fine for the purpose it had – a jumping-off point for me to write the rest of the book. But when I finished it and came back to consider the first chapter in word-by-word detail, I had to change it, make it better. One of the changes was this:
It began with the joyful pitch of a perfect stone. The first broken window gave the crowd a taste for enterprise, and soon the driver, a scab, was chased away, pursued by laughter and jeers as the multitude began a concerted effort to topple the huge vehicle.
I liked it because it describes the main character’s act as joyful. He’s not angry and that’s important. As well, it uses the phrase “a perfect stone.” The idea of that, the metaphor it created for me was so important that I needed it as a working title for the novel. Consequently, I had to scrub it from the first sentence.
So, I went for a description of the pitch:
History was made with a joyful overhand pitch and two-fingered release.
I found it satisfying. So I went further, and tried,
With a practiced two-fingered grip, he joyfully let go and was delighted in his work, proud of the immaculate hole he had sculpted.
The immaculate hole, I thought. That’s a keeper. But throw out the pitching lesson. Who cares? I came up with another (heavens!) metaphor and threw it in.
A blink of anticipation followed his first joyful pitch. The consequent concussion sculpted an immaculate hole in the window, and Jimmy was proud of his creation.
I liked the blink of anticipation but it caused a bunch of problems because it’s just not necessary. It took me several tries to get rid of it. And it’s hard to read “consequent concussion sculpted.” Too alliterationy.
An immaculate hole appeared in the window, proudly sculpted by Jimmy’s joyful pitch.
There. I’ve got joy, I’ve got my immaculate hole, but I also have the passive voice. Yuck.
And the hole should not be first. The pitch was first. Then comes the main character, the sculptor, and his effect on the crowd.
One joyful pitch was all it took. Jimmy’s perfect missile, proudly thrown, had sculpted an immaculate hole in the streetcar window. The protesters, witnessing his accomplishment and gratified by the taste of enterprise he had served up, followed, shedding their barriers of civility in a window-smashing tribute to the day’s purpose. They jeered and laughed as the driver, a scab, ran off, ultimately protected by the same anonymity that gave the host its vitality.
And there it sits. Not much to go on, but it’s so quick that maybe the reader will move right along without noticing.
A seven-word opening sentence.
It could be shorter, like, “Call me Ishmael.”
Or …, “In the beginning.”
Anyway, maybe none of this matters because you stopped reading after the first five words. I may be talking to myself again.
Full circle. The shape of the universe.
*Fassler, J. (2015, June 11). Why Stephen King spends ‘months and even years’ writing opening sentences. The Atlantic. Retrieved December 22, 2022, from https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/07/why-stephen-king-spends-months-and-even-years-writing-opening-sentences/278043/