Why Our Opening Lines Shouldn’t Have To Kill (Our Careers)

I’m writing this to save my own life.  If my opening line doesn’t seize you by the wallet and pry the credit card from your increasingly skeptical hand, I could die.  Or worse, not sell you my book.

According to accepted wisdom (syndicated through the usual links, Likes and sponsored emails) your career will literally immolate itself in a sparking bonfire of molton e-readers and declining Amazon sales ranks unless the first bunch of words mashed together in your novel’s opening creates an immediate emotional investment through foreshadowing, suspense, pathos and wit.  And it shouldn’t be as long as that previous sentence or people will get bored.

Rather than a first, joyous burst of inspiration, the “opening sentence” has become a dreaded pitfall, its sharpened spikes of failure waiting patiently to impale novices and over-eager, under-terrified hobbyists.  Like kitchen bacteria and lack of fresh breath before it, the “opening sentence” has taken a threatening tone after being plucked from obscurity and villainized in marketing blog posts less entertaining than this one. Everywhere you look now, inferior “opening sentences” are lurking around corners, just behind swine-flu and China, ready to invade and destroy your creative future from the inside out.

Fortunately, I know how we can beat this career-ending curse – we ban and abolish opening lines in all novels, everywhere, from this day on.  Imagine the feeling of freedom as endorphins surge your brain after the copy+paste+del, the oxytocin flushing fear and building new neural pathways for optimism and hope.  Readers everywhere will settle into your story taken softly by the gentle, experienced hands of your other opening line – the one that wasn’t thrice folded upon itself, structured to titillate and deliver an unsuspected smack upside the head, pulverizing any resistance and enforcing admiration.

After all, one paragraph in, no one can likely remember exactly how a book opened, hopefully because they’re actually caught up in the narrative and not endlessly mooning about how clever the story will hopefully prove to be.  Think of your favorite film – what’s the opening shot?  Exactly.  You probably couldn’t recall if you tried, as it’s everything that comes after that counts.

Meanwhile, we’re ignoring what’s really threatening to wantonly dismember and spray flaming napalm on our futures as artists:

1) Lack Of Social Integration: reading your long-form text-only narrative is an uphill climb, and not one that burns calories either.  What’s the use of being on page fifty-two without the relevant social context of knowing where friends and attractive strangers have read up to?  Add “Notes” to explain which sock you like to pull on first before writing, or just add “Like” buttons to provide encouragement!

2) Make Your Book Multitask: Somehow include footnotes reminding readers to check the laundry, pay the electric bill or watch the trailer for your new release.  Add value while creating a “sticky” experience through your book / brand interface portal.

3) Complete & Proper Spelling Of Words: In today’s unforgivingly-paced society it’s difficult enough to get through an entire blog post, never mind deciphering such old-fashioned complexities such as “through” and “he laughed loudly” and “because”.  Lrn 2 abbrvte evrthng.

Here’s a perfect example, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn begins with nothing less than a cynical marketing ploy – intended not only to inflict a sense of inadequacy in new readers but to raise sales for Tom Sawyer. Perhaps we should entirely reevaluate Twain; was he truly one of the most original voices in early American culture or just a proto-James Frey?

Arguably one of the greatest opening lines in modern memory, “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I don’t know.” isn’t even an opening line, it’s a passage.  “Mother died today” on its own is a snore.  It’s not until he glanced back at “Or maybe yesterday” that a legendary friendship and eventual rivalry was born. (For those unfamiliar, Camus and Sartre were like the Professor X and Magneto of the mid-20th century European philosophical scene, with Simone de Beauvoir occasionally dropping by to cameo à la Emma Frost.)

The opening line to All the King’s Men?  Just tedious driving directions – get a sat-nav, seriously.  Stop wasting my precious, precious time.  The opening to Atlas Shrugged may as well be, “What’s in my TiVo?” for all the excitement “Who is John Galt?” offers.  Why are you asking me, Rand?  Should I have watched your trailer first?  I need to express a torrent of thoughts on Tumblr about the locally-sourced non-gluten bran muffin in my other hand.  Moby Dick?  Please, call me bored, instead. What’s all this reliance on weird names I’ve never heard of?  Next.  Wuthering Heights?  Now we’re getting somewhere, I mean who hasn’t had troubles with their landlord?  Bronte is really throwing us smack into the haunting gothic drama, the atmosphere and isolation of Northern England in a time before Livejournal.

Manufacturing the most devastatingly perfect “opening line” is a losing gambit.  What we think of the greatest opens in fiction more than likely evolved organically, rather than through workshop-inspired structuring.  Many of the most beloved “opening lines” through history would hardly even be worth a retweet on a slow news day.  Save your tireless reworking for where it’s needed most – self-serving marketing articles like this one.

 

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