Thursday, September 12, 2013

FIRST LINES IN FICTION - Do They Matter?

How much does the first line in fiction matter? There are no shortages of websites and author resources designed to help a writer make his first sentence matter or sizzle or explode or any multitude of action verbs and any neurotic writer could drive himself up a wall trying to decide which website actually knew anything worth a damn.
I mean, should a writer drive himself into a first sentence-envy frenzy- a paralysis - that keeps them from proceeding to the next paragraph because they didn't write that classic, oft-quoted first line? Come on, true readers know what I'm talking about. Think about the classics, the one you can pull out of your pocket at any time:

"We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold."     
                                            -Hunter Thompson, Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins."     
                                            -Vladimir Nobokov, Lolita

"Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler's pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die."     
                                             -Chuck Pahalniuk, Fight Club

"All this happened, more or less."                                                  
                                             -Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

First lines are a Jeopardy! category. First lines are the bellboys at the door of the hotel, asking you to come in and stay a while. First lines are a fuse the writer lights on the first page what follows will either be a spark, a dud, or a an explosion which leaves your ears ringing for days.
But do they really matter?
Here are some of the first lines I've written and have been published. A link to each story is attached, so I suppose if you click on it, that means it worked.


"The specimen is Sam Tuley, chosen not just for his overzealous sex drive, penchant for alcohol and violence, and inability to make the most of a second chance, but rather because, try as he might, he will forever be damned to a hospital bed with tubes going in and out of him."

"On the third night of rain, we reckoned about thirteen or so Negroes were gone."

"The motel had a washer and dryer, so Melinda Kendall thought it best to take advantage and get after her clothes before they got out of hand."

"Miles Del Riccio stepped out onto his front lawn as the sun peeed over the horizon and was surprised to see his newspaper waiting for him."

Here's some that are available either in print or e-book.

"A woman shielded her baby from the rain."

"The book ended no different this time than it had the previous seven he'd read it." (This story is also being turned into a film directed by Christopher G. Moore.)

"A car full of jailbait whizzed past like a rocket and beeped its horn until it screamed up and down the neighborhood."

In this digital age, battles are waged for the attention span of readers and the first line stands at the front lines. If any of those above got you to click on the link to view the story, then they must have done a good job. Editors, publishers and agents all want to be wowed by that first line and many writers tell horror stories of how stories fall rejected by the failure to capture a reader by the first line.
Curious, I went back to some of the books that "kept me up until five because all their stars are out, and for no other reason." Did these books have some knock-down, drag-out first line that blew the doors off the fiction? You be the judge.

6. Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy
This is one of the coolest books out there. The premise: brother and sister have relations then have a baby and brother sells the baby to a traveling salesman. Sister goes after the salesman, brother goes

after sister and -- did I mention? -- three sadistic killers roam that very landscape. This book doesn't stop. Some of the most horrible events happen among the landscape of Cormac McCarthy's haunting, poetic prose and it all begins with:
"SHE SHOOK HIM AWAKE INTO THE QUIET DARKNESS."

5. The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor
As mentioned in a previous post, the first time I read O'Connor's second and final novel, I finished it in bed well past two in the morning. I shut off the light and laid there for a half hour, then flicked back on the light and began again at page one. No other book has done this to me. It's chilling, Southern prose and gives a cold dignity to devout characters. But I've overlooked the first line in both readings. It's a clunker and will never be memorized, but does it matter, in light of my experience with it?
"FRANCIS MARION TARWATER'S UNCLE HAD BEEN DEAD FOR ONLY HALF A DAY WHEN THE BOY GOT TOO DRUNK TO FINISH DIGGING HIS GRAVE AND A NEGRO NAMED BUFORD MUNSON, WHO HAD COME TO GET A JUG FILLED, HAD TO FINISH IT AND DRAG THE BODY FROM THE BREAKFAST TABLE WHERE IT WAS STILL SITTING AND BURY IT IN A DECENT AND CHRISTIAN WAY, WITH THE SIGN OF THE SAVIOUR AT THE HEAD OF THE GRAVE AND ENOUGH DIRT ON TOP TO KEEP THE DOGS FROM DIGGING IT UP."
 
4. Provinces of Night, by William Gay
Sometimes first lines serve as a warning sign. Something between "Trespassers will be shot" and "Abandon All Hope..." As if to say, this here stands testament to that which will follow and if you can't handle it, it's best you get out now. As if to say to all those "bauds of euphony" who can only hand a humdinger of a first line can stand aside while true fiction gets laid down and this is how it will be dealt from here on out. I have to admit, Gay's entire first chapter is as dense as his first line and offers just as much about where it's going, but the first line of Provinces of Night represents that bellhop, holding open the door, showing you the lobby so that you may determine if you can afford to stay there or not.
"JUST AT TWILIGHT, BOYD CAME UP THE GRAVELED WALK, THE CHAIN WITH ITS PLOWPOINT WEIGHT DRAWING THE GATE CLOSED BEHIND HIM, BEFORE HIM THE SHANTY BLACK AND DEPTHLESS AS A STAGEPROP AGAINST THE FAILING LIGHT."
 
3. One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Want to instill your reader with immediate dread and paranoia, perhaps reminiscent of a bad acid trip? We're about to enter the mind of a crazy, mute Native American who's mind has been damaged by electrotherapy to the point that he hallucinates and sees comic books and tells a story that is "the truth even if it didn't happen." To pull of this revolutionary fictive feat, you're going to need to set the stage quick and how does the genius Kesey propose to do it?
"THEY'RE OUT THERE."
 
2. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Like every other sociopath out there, I related well to early readings of Salinger's conflicted protagonist. Holden Caufield establishes his voice early on and for us to travel with a youth suspicious of "phonies" and adults, we're going to need to feel comfortable with him. A book destined to spend years on banned lists at public schools would question authority, profanity, and in the cases of many an assassin or serial killer: sanity. From the onset, Salinger let you know that he didn't care much for the old standards of fiction and challenged them by going head to head with one of the sacred icons of the novel genre.
"IF YOU REALLY WANT TO HEAR ABOUT IT, THE FIRST THING YOU'LL PROBABLY WANT TO KNOW ABOUT IS WHERE I WAS BORN, AND WHAT MY LOUSY CHILDHOOD WAS LIKE, AND HOW MY PARENTS WERE OCCUPIED AND ALL BEFORE THEY HAD ME, AND ALL THAT DAVID COPPERFIELD KIND OF CRAP, BUT I DON'T FEEL LIKE GOING INTO IT, IF YOU WANT TO KNOW THE TRUTH."
 
1. Agatite, or Rage by Clay Reynolds
Around 1993, I found this paperback beneath mounds of junk in my roommate's cluttered bedroom. I read the first sentence and never put the book down. Later, when I left the country for an extended vacation, this was one of the few items I brought with me. I read it every two years to remind myself how fiction should be written. A perfect blend of beautifully written prosaic exposition and crackling, Southern dialogue and well-paced, terse action... The setting, the characters, the plot... This is the perfect piece of fiction. I just re-read it and it holds up every time.
Once, I wrote the author and asked him to lunch. I wanted to talk about the book and offer to adapt it into a screenplay. I was young and dumb and didn't understand the business of screenwriting yet, but he was gracious and we ate lunch and chain-smoked cigarettes and talked baseball and he told me if I ever wanted to be a writer, I should get a degree. I asked him what I should do after that, and he replied: "Get another one." I followed his advice, got two degrees and moved to North Carolina where I became a writer. So if I can say my life was changed by any one book, and by extension, any first line, it would be this one:
"WHO WOULD'VE KNOWN?"
 
So do first lines really matter? As shown by O'Connor and Daniel Woodrell and William Gay, there are audiences out there with longer attention spans and can make it past an uninteresting or wordy first line. But more often than not, a good writer is a consistent one and his first line is a sampling of what is to follow. It's the first date and the reader is still deciding whether or not they should put out.
 
What are some of your favorite first lines?

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