Saturday, November 14, 2009

Opening Lines

As I pack for Hong Kong, I'm preparing lots of class materials and updating ones I've used before. It's interesting to see what I've used that worked, and think about how to present information in a better way. One new class I am teaching this time will be based on students answering a series of questions - I hope they're ready for lots of talking. In the classroom during the year, discussion is a strange bird that sometimes takes flight and sometimes stays huddled down, wings stubbornly folded. It can be a challenge to find a way of drawing students out - the confident ones will always have a go.

Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide from Story Creation to PublicationSo finding a new book that tackles a familiar subject in a way that is useful to me is a great discovery. Today I was reading Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide from Story Creation to Publication by Ann Whitford Paul, and in particular the chapter on opening lines. You would think a picture book was so short that the opening line wasn't that important, but she gives excellent examples of how an opening line can change the whole tone of the story.

She uses The Three Little Pigs as an example - whose point of view is the story being told from? The wolf's? (My day got better as soon as I saw those three plump little pigs being thrown out of their house by mean old Mum.) Do you start with pathos (Mum Pig crying over her boys leaving) or anger (the little pigs thinking Mum is being horrible to them)? She gives a wide range of possibilities for how to start this very familiar tale, and each one changes the story into something new.

Every story is the same. I see people start with dialogue that has no identification for several lines, thinking they are being mysterious. Or they start with character description, so you'll know up front who this person is. The art of a stunning first line is a challenge to every writer, no matter what you write. David Sedaris starts one of his essays with: "Well, that little experiment is over," my mother said. Stuart MacBride starts Blind Eye with: Waiting was the worst bit: hunkered back against the wall, eyes squinting in the setting sun, waiting for the nod.

What do great first lines have? A sense of place and character, even if not spelled out. A sense of tone, a smidgin of description. But very often they have a story question - a real one, not one that is trying to trick the reader. Joe Abercrombie starts Before They Are Hanged with: Damn mist. It gets in your eyes so you can't see no more than a few strides ahead. (OK, so it's a fragment and a sentence.) It's setting and tone and character altogether - what kind of character says 'no more' and 'strides' rather than 'any further' and 'feet' or 'metres'?

I always feel like that first paragraph is a promise. It's no wonder people stand in bookshops and read first paragraphs and first pages. But they start with the first line that draws them in, and the next lines keep them reading. What's the best first line you've read recently?


ayaz said...

Interesting post, Sherryl.

An opening line I love from the last novel I read a while ago, Mistborn The Final Empire, by Brandon Sanderson is:

"Sometimes, I worry that I'm not the hero everyone thinks I am. . . ."

Sherryl said...

Ah yes, so you expect the story to tell you how the main character fulfills the hero role - and hopefully it will be a long and arduous task, with plenty of ups and downs along the way!

Hector Macdonald said...

Sherryl, you have a very thoughtful blog, and we'd love to have you contribute on Young fiction to, where you can add information, images, video, music and links to illustrate and explore favourite books.