The Starting Line
by Allison Hamilos
The first line.
It’s the starting line, if your writing were a race. All of your fancy semicolons, less highfalutin’ periods, and quiet little commas assume their positions on the starting blocks; your adjective friends and most athletic verbs nestle in between, all ready to begin the journey of a lifetime!
Well, at least you hope so.
It doesn’t really matter what you’re writing. If your race begins with the glamour of the Olympic torch lighting, you can pretty much bet you’ll spark your readers’ attention, and keep them hooked until at least the second paragraph. However, if your starting gunshot begins something of a snail’s race, well, you’d better hope English snobs (in their infinite wisdom) capriciously decide to make your writing a staple of high school English torture. Otherwise, don’t expect Pulitzer to come breaking down your door anytime soon.
I was thinking about the importance of the starting line the other day, while combing over the pieces of my less-than-quarter-put-together jigsaw puzzle of a novel. Rereading it, I found lines that were great, and thought, “Allison, old girl, you will be published!” Then I discovered others so inexplicably distressing I summarily snapped my laptop shut in disgust.
Writing is something I love, something I’ve always done. As a toddler, I imagined myself the star of my own TV show; when I got older, I became the star of my own epic novel. I always thought someday I would be a published, acclaimed author, but to be successful in writing is so hit-or-miss. Even artistic masters are often unappreciated until after they die. So how can I be sure my writing will be picked up, that publishers will read more than the first paragraph before tossing it aside? How can I perfect the novel I’ve been tweaking since I was fifteen?
I’m not saying the first sentence is the most important part of a given piece of writing. Arguably, that medal probably goes to the last sentence. But it’s clear the first sentence sets the standard, hopefully such a high one it becomes impossible to put the piece down. Obviously, you could have a bang-on opening and botch up the rest of your work and your introduction would get you nowhere. It’s a given the rest of your writing must be as good as your beginning, maybe not as taut, but certainly of the same quality. The key is to make your skill evident immediately and set up interest, to become a distinct voice the reader can know and trust. But what’s the best way to do this?
There’s certainly no one answer. A lot of what will make the first line of a piece memorable depends on the author’s voice coming through in an engaging way, and this will be very different from writer to writer. I do believe, however, that we can look to great writers to give us good examples of what can be done. Particularly, I propose that, in the process of determining how to begin, we should look specifically at what excites us as readers about our favorite introductions from other authors.
So, let me give it a try. Let’s look first at some examples from one of my favorite authors, Jonathan Stroud. If there’s a single writer who has influenced me the most, Stroud would be the guy. I have read and reread his Bartimaeus Trilogy books so many times the bindings crackle and shudder every time I pick one of them up. But what made me initially decide to read the first one, The Amulet of Samarkand?
It was on one of the those stifling family visits, the kind that make eighth grade mixers and root canals seem obscenely fun, when I first chanced upon Stroud’s work. After hours of suffering through gossip mongering about the latest area funerals, I implored my mother to give me something, anything, to reduce the tedium. The wonderful librarian she is, dear Mama promptly loaded my arms with a stack of over twelve candidates and sent me hobbling back to my room at Grandma Hamilos’s.
It was a simple line, sure, but it had the quality of inserting immediate momentum into the story.
I could tell immediately I had zero interest in almost any of the books. I picked up five in a row and read the first page, two if the book was lucky, and tossed each aside in disgust.
Then I picked up The Amulet of Samarkand.
Immediately, I felt leery about the book. It was about ‘magicians’ and ‘demons’ and other really lame stuff, according to my mama. I just wasn’t into that scene. But I cracked it open, just in case, and read the first line: “The temperature of the room dropped fast.”
To say the least, the first sentence wasn’t what I expected. It was a simple line, sure, but it had the quality of inserting immediate momentum into the story. The line was short and quickly read, which ensured that I understood it instantaneously and didn’t have to skim it. Furthermore, action popped immediately in this sentence. Starting with a crisp action was very different from many books I had picked up, which began with some clichéd scene-setting description. Furthermore, the action-introduction was like nudging a boulder over the edge of a cliff. Why did the temperature drop? And why so “fast?” The starting line sets up plenty of suspense, excitement, and action in only seven words. 1
Suffice it to say, I was hooked. I ended up reading a book I never would have deigned to touch simply because of Stroud’s intriguing beginning, which sets up the voice of his character, Bartimaeus. Of course, plenty of good writing would follow, but that first line got me started, and I didn’t want to stop.
In The Golem’s Eye, the second book of his trilogy, Stroud again begins with a bang, but in a different way. “At dusk, the enemy lit their campfires one by one, in greater profusion than on any night before.” This starting sentence is definitely longer, and contains a stronger element of descriptive power. “Dusk” sets a gray, foreboding mood, which contrasts vividly with the campfires popping up like small fireworks. However, note how within the scene-setting, Stroud again includes a momentum-gathering action. The “enemy” not only lights their fires, but also does so “one by one.” This particular detail, though simple, not only gives an ominous sense of propinquity to the foe, but also more importantly slows the progress of a sentence that wants to go fast. It’s almost like flooring the gas pedal while in neutral. Tension is steadily pulling at the threads of the sentence, urging it forward, while the detail jerks it back. In addition, “in greater profusion” implies a particularly unfavorable number of enemies have decided to show up, increasing the dramatic apprehension. It seemed clear from the first sentence something big and very bad is about to happen, something I definitely needed to stick around to see. It’s also worth noting the second line of The Golem’s Eye, in which Stroud seamlessly continues to sustain the momentum while flashing some of his literary guns.2 “The lights sparkled like fiery jewels out in the grayness of the plains, so numerous it seemed an enchanted city had sprung up from the earth.” The first line sets up the excitement and the second line makes bank, ensuring you’ll stick around to read the rest.
I’ve also noticed another interesting trend, the pithy two to three word opening, followed with a paragraph break. (You may have noticed the essay you’re reading now happens to begin in this fashion.) Stroud uses this technique aptly in his third book, Ptolemy’s Gate, beginning with a simple, “Times change,” followed by a break. It’s a great opener for a sequel. Since the reader is probably already familiar with the characters and situations, a simple “change” indicates something exciting, novel, and yes, probably bad, is impending. The following break leaves a pause, keeping me hungry for details. Why have times changed? What’s happened? Has someone died? What sort of adventure is in store? The break leaves me the slightest moment to consider all these questions and propels me into the story. The pause is almost longer than the sentence itself, and it definitely compels me to read the next paragraph, which, properly done, will keep many readers hooked throughout the novel.
Jonathan Stroud is not the only author to employ this trick. One of my all-time favorite novels, David Klass's You Don't Know Me, features the same sort of clincher beginning. "You don't know me," parades at the top of page one, separated by a full line from the next paragraph. It's fascinating as a reader to see this. It forces me to ask in the following silence, "Why don't I know him?" Such a bold statement is bound to catch your eye, and the break perfects its subtle control over your attention. As in a splendorous concerto where the rests ring just as prominently as the notes themselves, the space between the starting line and the next paragraph gives just enough of a taste of Klass's voice to want to hear more. 3
In the same way a bite of Spam will leave you longing for genuine meat, a clichéd opening will leave the nasty aftertaste of the counterfeit, whether paragraph-spaced or not.
Of course, such a winning technique, when misused, can be an easy way out for bad writing. The key to its success seems to be its ringing authenticity; the opening phrase must have the sensation that comes from a unique voice. In the same way a bite of Spam will leave you longing for genuine meat, a clichéd opening will leave the nasty aftertaste of the counterfeit, whether paragraph-spaced or not. This might be my favorite aspect of this technique; whether it flows is immediately intuitive to the reader. If this opening is wrought without meticulous care, it seems clear the same shoddiness can be expected to continue, and such an attention-grabbing opening will have the opposite of its intended effect. I suppose, then, what makes such paragraph-break openings so appealing must lie somewhat less in the structural form than in its crafting, the ability of the writer to weave his or her voice seamlessly into the texture of the piece while inducing momentum linguistically. Put another way, the technique is simply the car. Without the writer’s unique style to drive it forward, it’s just another vehicle.
But what other options for starting lines are out there? There are so many more styles that appeal to me. What about those insane world-wide best sellers? What does J.K. Rowling have hidden in her quill we normal Muggles don’t that has made her one of the wealthiest authors of all time? Clearly, readers the world over agree her stories are mesmerizing, but how did she draw people in to start with, before she became such a phenomenon? I would argue the humor and readability of her first line in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone won her at least a portion of the battle. It begins, “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” Part of the skill of this line lies within its context. It’s not necessarily a beautifully written or particularly clever sentence; it’s more the unexpected elements that make it enticing. When beginning Harry Potter, it’s unlikely a reader is expecting a story about “perfectly normal” people, so the phrase is intriguing. Additionally, certain prudish words like “Privet Drive,” “proud to say,” and specifically “number four,” indirectly comment on the uppity personalities of these characters. Clearly, this couple thoroughly obsesses about appearances and foolishly prattles arrogantly about their status, as they are “proud to say.” Also revealing is the “number four,” which implies that, although the two believe they are of the first importance, their ranking, perhaps in society, perhaps in character, is not even top three. Best of all about this introductory line, however, is the final commentary, “thank you very much.” It solidifies the snobbish character of the statement, almost as if the Dursleys had said it themselves. The phrase also adds humor to the line, since readers may feel their own sense of superiority over the characters when they realize how oblivious the Dursleys are to their own foppishness.4 Again, it’s also intriguing; what role will these people play in such an ‘abnormal’ story? Rowling succeeds in striking a humorous tone, establishing intriguing characters, and raising curiosity, which makes this particular opening an important part of this bestseller.
From exploring what excites me about some of my favorite openings, it seems a few common threads weave through them all. Although every introductory sentence has its own unusual attributes, what makes each appealing appears similar. Each starting line possesses a pithy quality, immediately injecting both momentum and voice. All of them also establish something of the character or characters involved and set a standard for the writing to come. Most importantly, though, each opening feels genuine and rolls gently off the tongue. The honest character of these lines fosters a bond between writer and reader. The writer’s unique voice captures the reader’s attention. If that established voice is one the reader likes to listen to and wants to hear more from, the opening has ensured the reader will stick around at least until paragraph two. It all seems to amount to a palpable passion, authentic in the writer and instilled in the reader. Tantalized with a tasty appetizer, the reader will look ahead to the mouth-watering main course-- the remainder of the story.
Reflecting on these observations, perhaps I should look back at the opening of my own novel-in-progress. The prologue actually came to me in a dream, as clichéd as that may sound. It was a forest scene at midnight, with stars blinking sharply overhead between the thickly interwoven branches of woodland canopy high above me and another person. I remember very little about the dream now, except the foliage around me suddenly coming alight. Flames shot up along the trunks of the trees, tracing molten lines along each branch and twig until it formed a blazing ceiling, complete with embers falling down around us like electric confetti. Then ensued an epic chase scene, where we ran and ran until I realized at some point I was narrating the story instead of experiencing it. Awake by then, I fought to keep the vision in my head, reliving it again in words from as far back as I could remember. Of all the lines I narrated, I remember only one: "It was night, but the sky was on fire." This line became the beginning of my prologue.
What's so intriguing about this line is its organic quality. Yes, I wrote it consciously during the fading dream, but I did not write it with an opening purpose in mind. Nevertheless, I somehow know in my gut this is the opening, that there's no other possible way to begin. I like it because it's grounded so thoroughly in my personal experience. The line feels genuine to me because it is genuine. It's almost limbic, filled with ordinary sensations, ordinary thoughts, ordinary words. Yet what makes it extraordinary is the odd twisting of common sensations in a distressing way. It reminds me of poet Billy Collins's intriguing 'word-marriages,' in which he combines two starkly unrelated things in a spicy and quirky new way. Neither "night" nor "fire" is an unusual word, but the darkness of night and the hot brightness of fire contrast frighteningly. And the vision is supposed to be shocking --the "sky," a normally peaceful blue expanse-- is burning. The startling image hopefully instigates curiosity while pushing momentum. But what amazes me most is that I did not think about any of these elements of the sentence. Whatever striking quality it might have came unconsciously. Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe another important element of an opening is a certain flow, an inexpressible 'rightness' about it that cannot be contrived.
Flames shot up along the trunks of the trees, tracing molten lines along each branch and twig until it formed a blazing ceiling, complete with embers falling down around us like electric confetti.
Most interesting of all though, as I think about my opening, is how clearly my favorite writers have influenced me. I recognize immediately that I had, without consciously meaning to, inserted a paragraph break after this line, just as Klass did. I notice the sort of simplicity and pithiness Stroud uses to create tension and momentum. Most of all, I notice the voice, which, though truly my own, contains elements of all these authors’ voices.
What does this all mean? Did I do it right without meaning to? Was this investigation meaningless?
I don’t think so. Through looking into what captures my interest in others’ writing, I’ve found out so much more about my own style. Whether unconsciously employed or carefully thought out, there’s something to be said about understanding how your mind creates. This leads to my next question: what do our distinctive writing styles say about us as people? Can we become self-actualized through investigating our own writing voices and tracing our influences?
Perhaps the analysis of our creation process can lead us to better creation.Note:
The novels and writers quoted and mentioned in this essay include: The Bartimaeus Trilogy (The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem’s Eye, Ptolemy’s Gate), by Jonathan Stroud, You Don’t Know Me by David Klass, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, and Seeker, a novel-in -progress by yours truly.
Additionally, I reference Billy Collins’s “word marriages.” Two good poems that exemplify this strategy include “The End of the World” and “Thesaurus,” both from The Art of Drowning. The idea for “marrying words” comes from the final stanza of “Thesaurus”, in which Collins writes,
“Surely, you have seen pairs of them standing forever
next to each other on the same line inside a poem,
a small chapel where weddings like these,
between perfect strangers, can take place.”
1Thinking about it now, I suppose the seven words may have been extra appropriate, since Stroud's book was saturated with traditional magical references.
2A metaphor for using a metaphor! How cute!
3Definitely read this book, by the way. It's an amazing story, and oh-so-funny. I get a lot of my humorous voice from emulating Klass's quirky style.
4Ironic, really, to feel superior over someone because he himself feels superior. Maybe Rowling is making a subtle point here.