I’ve been thinking about opening lines to books a bit recently, not least because The Body Orchard, the next book I want to write, has been stewing in my head for a while, and I’m ready to start writing it.
It’s a truth universally accepted that most articles about Jane Austen will start with a paraphrase of the opening line of Emma, though I must admit I’ve always found the sentiments of the sentence (which I’m far from inclined to accept) tend to put me off a bit.
I recall being told at school that the start of The Catcher In The Rye was noted for its length and flippant tone, and I could kind of see why, but then a decade or so I found an ‘uncut’ version of the book, which included a whole new section at the end of that well-regarded sentence, which was a bit off-putting.
I’ve always been fond of the beginning of Kafka’s The Trial, with its almost casual reference to the fact that the soon-to-be persecuted protagonist is innocent, and now I think about it the start of Metamorphosis is pretty classy too, and is certainly bolstered by the fact that (if memory serves) the story doesn’t go on to explain exactly why Gregor has turned into an insect. The opening sentence draws you in with the ‘what the hell..?’ factor, and then it’s too late, they’re knocking at the door and you’re in the story.
Isn’t there a story by Poe or Defoe (or maybe it was Cotton Eye Joe?) which has a line on the first page to the effect that if you read a page of it, you’ll soon forget the fact it’s meant to be a tale which the narrator is telling you? “Read one page, and I will be forgot” or something like that. Classy if you can pull it off, but I’m not so sure I could be that confident, and besides I’m such a rampant egomaniac I want everyone reading my stuff to be remembering my name, fame, I’m gonna live for ever.
More than anything else, though, I found myself thinking that one of the best opening lines I’ve ever read is the first line of the first chapter of the first book of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series:
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
I think that’s very effective writing – sets up who, where and what’s going on, and of course raises a lot of questions in the reader’s mind. A good way to rope you in (which is probably very wise indeed, as Mr K intends to keep your attention for seven books before the tale is told).
So, it’s very probably with this line very much in mind that, last night, I wrote the following:
The dying man coughed, sending a spray of blood onto the living room carpet.
Sure, the content’s not very pleasant, and I’m sure that it’ll get changed more than once in the rewrite… but it’s a start.