Thursday, April 17, 2008

Opening lines

We all know the importance of hooking your reader with a great opening line.

This article in The Guardian states that "if the author can't take the trouble, or hasn't got the nous, to sculpt those words from which all the rest flow, they probably haven't taken the trouble in all those other key moments of the text when the interpretative pressure is at its highest, when the duty to capture a whole fictional world in a single breath is at its most pressing. Screw up the opening, screw up the book."

Blimey, mate. Calm down. We get your drift.

Which comes first, though, the idea or the opening sentence or paragraph? Louise Doughty is currently building a novel around the line "Muscle has memory..." which was said to her by her physiotherapist and struck her as the perfect starter. I'll gloss over the time I tried to write an entire novel based on a title I dreamt up in the bath, and mention instead that I was reminded of a tip I read somewhere, for getting your short story or novel off the blocks.

Type into Google the words, "It's a well-known fact..." OR "It's a little known fact ..."
and you'll come up with some, er, interesting opening lines.

For instance:-

"It's a well-known fact that many people have no finger-prints..." Could be a crime story?

"It's a little-known fact that cows were domesticated in Mesopotamia..." Comedy, perhaps? Sci-Fi?

"It's a well-known fact that with enough Tea the British can do anything..." Satire? Cosy drama?

On the other hand, the same search yielded :-

"Its a well-known fact that swimming regularly makes you look good and feel great..." Not if you're scared of water it doesn't.

"It's a well-known fact that urine is drinkable..." Er, pass.

"Its a little known fact that kids under the age 9 are made of rubber..." WHAT?

I wouldn't recommend this exercise if you've more than two brain cells, or something resembling a life, but it's a fun way to while away a minute or two while the kettle's boiling, and it might even trigger something. (An urge to stop reading this blog, probably - Ed.)

There's a list of the 100 best first lines of novels here and I even recognise some of them (alright, 2 for definite), but I was gutted that the following one was missing:-

"Now once, when Brer Rabbit was hard at work scraping the stones off his bit of ground, he heard a cry for help." Brer Rabbit's a Rascal by Enid Blyton.

Okay, so it lacks tension and emotional depth, but I liked it.
(I've got visions, now, of Woman's Weekly receiving a handful of stories next month, beginning with the line - "It's a well-known fact that many people have no fingerprints..." )


Yvonne said...

Great post and great idea with the 'little known' lines! The whole idea of opening lines makes me a little nervous...The Guardian article does go overboard, but they're right!

HelenMWalters said...

Oh dear, I'm still trying to come up with a short story to fit a line I had a dream about. 'A single strand of spaghetti, a single drop of olive oil'. What!?!

Kerry said...

Brilliant post Karen. So true and I felt a guilty bluch rising reading the Guardian journalists comment /:

Also I *LOVE* Brer Rabbit my Ma used to read me the southern american one....I haven't thought about that in years!

Kerry said...

Oh God! My bad spelling is evolving...obviously I meant blush....*blush*

Jumbly Girl said...

Fab post Karen. The GUardian quote has made me quake. I am in need of a new opening line/paragraph after realising I had started my novel in the wrong place (Doh!). Like the idea of the random googling I must give it a try, it sounds like a great way of getting story ideas.

I love Brer Rabbit and have just got my daughter a full set from a jumbly - she is so far showing no interest whatsoever so I may need to read them to her in her sleep and then ask if she's had any strange dreams of animals covered in tar and feathers

Lady Ursula Major said...

Scary Guardian. Good post. Time to go reread my first lines. Ach!

Lane Mathias said...

Now you see, I'm not sure if I agree with Mr/Ms Guardian writer. Sure the opener has got to be good but I certainly don't believe it has to be the line to end all lines. Who would discard a book just because the opening sentence doesn't grab you?? Mind you after reading No95 in that list, I could well do that!

(ps re your comment over at mine - Northern Exposure was brill. Remember John Corbett as the radio guy. Hubba hubberrrr:-) Must find a DVD at library too:-)

Annieye said...

Fantastic Post, Karen. I loved Brer Rabbit - in fact I loved all Enid Blyton Books.

You can just imagine the Guardian journalist, peering disdainfully over the top of his/her glasses and everyone feeling like they were five-years old.

DAB said...

It's a well-known fact that Clarkey is a woman up for a wordy challenge. Now stop stuffing your face with cake and get yourself over to my blog. I need your help! Tommox

Jen said...

Oh, you can never go wrong with a bot of random Googling! It should be made a sport.

Great post - especially the 'pass' comment after the 'urine' fact... ew.

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

Brilliant post, I'm now going to have to google "It's a well..."

Karen said...

yvonne - If I could just write opening lines I'd be on to a winner. It's the rest of 'em that's tricky!

helenmh - That would be a great opening line! A story about an evil (or genius) chef springs to mind :o)

kerry - Don't worry about the spelling - I do it all the tmie ;o)
Brer Rabbit was a lovable scamp - I'm glad no-one ever made him into a casserole.
I don't know why I said that...

jumbly girl - Absorbing Brer Rabbit by osmosis...I like that :o)

I read somewhere that the second paragraph should be where most novels start, if that's any help! I should probably apply that to my own writing.

kalliope - I spend too much time tinkering with my first lines as it is. If it became an Olympic sport I'd win gold :o)

lane - I must admit there've been times it's taken me a full chapter to properly get into a book, so he I think he was probably over-dramatising.

I DO remember lovely John Corbett, but when he appeared in SATC I spent quite a while trying to remember where I'd seen him before!

annieye - You're right, I'm sure literary snobbishness would rear it's ugly head again! I loved the Malory Towers/St Clare's series as well!

tommo - I would stop stuffing my face with cake, but it helps me creativity. That's my story anyway...

spiralskies - I'm quite new to Random Googling, but it could become addictive. As if I need any more distractions...

debs - It's good fun, I must say. I've already had an idea for a story actually, so not a total waste of time!

Leigh Forbes said...

Sorry for the late comment; I've had your post open on the screen all weekand, but have too distracted googling! Great post - really thought-provoking, and rather scary!