They all seek attention.
So some are scary. Some are tender. Some sound like prophecy. Many are profane. More than a few are sexy.
They seduce you daily.
I'm talking about opening lines, a subject that comes up every time I'm asked to talk about writing. No, not the kind of opening lines single people practice in front of their mirrors before hitting the bars. I'm talking about the kind you read magazines, books and sometimes even in newspapers.
I read once in Poets & Writers magazine that every great opening line is like a seed that carries the DNA from which a story will grow. And I've noticed it's true. Every opening line I can remember sets a tone, establishes a setting, introduces a distinctive character, sets a story or plot in motion, proclaims a great truth, or proposes mysteries and riddles. Some do several such things at once.
An opening line that literally changed my life by transforming me into a reader at the age of 12, is from "Tarzan of the Apes," by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Deceptively simple, it goes: "I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other."
I've often thought about why that line hooked me so, and I think it's because the narrator invited me to join an exclusive club, to become one of the few initiates into dangerous insider information, a story that... Just. Might. Be. True. The voice established is sophisticated, compelling and mysterious, not a bit like, "Me Tarzan. You Jane," which was about the level of sophistication a dozen movies had conditioned me to expect.
Or take, "They're out there," from Ken Kesey's novel, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." In three words, a sense of dread, maybe paranoia, is conjured in this tale about inhabitants of a mental hospital. The narrative voice is first-person, surely, and an amazing "first person" Kesey creates. Chief Broom, the mental patient telling the story, is the classic unreliable narrator-paranoid, delusional, drug-addled, bigoted, unschooled, and immensely courageous we learn later on. He seems to grow organically from that opening line. Does it create tension? Surely. Describe a setting? To the extent that we know we're inside some insular, claustrophobic place, yes. Does it propose mysteries and riddles? Hint at the book's them? Of course. In recent months I've heard that line, "They're out there," repeated in commercials and sitcoms. It's entered the nation's pop culture, along with Nurse Ratched, Chief Broom and Randle P. McMurphy.
Or consider the line, "Behold the fat man." This is the opening to a prize-winning newspaper feature by David Finkel of The St. Petersburg Times. The subject is "the world's fattest man," a corny sideshow at a county fair. The tone and voice established in four words are Biblical, grandiose. I think the line works because of this contrast between cheap context and epic tone. It hints at universal themes such as exploitation, cruelty, our need for scapegoats, the nature of shame, mockery, status and destiny.
But the line works in another way, too. It is a commandment, a summons. It's like the opening to Walker Percy's novel, "Lancelot:" "Come into my cell." What reader can resist entering that book?
When I first started writing, most of my opening lines were not the first things I committed to paper (later to the computer screen). Usually, I would write two or three paragraphs to warm up to my subject. Only afterward, often during revision, would I discover my true opening line.
It would be hiding three or four paragraphs down, and much that preceded it would be boring or tentative. Like many beginning writers, I had to tiptoe up to my theme, voice, point-of-view, tone, discovering them as I went along. Once these were established, a line would jump out at me that I would recognize as the true opening, and I would either move it up or delete all that I had written before.
Ask yourself how the lines worked that drew you into your favorite books and made a reader out of you. Or consider some all-time classics:
Charles Dickens' line, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
Or... "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."
Or... "In the middle of the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wood," from Dante's "Divine Comedy."
Or... "Call me Ishmael," from Moby Dick.
Such lines are deceptively simple, taking only a whisper of time to utter. Yet they may persist for decades, centuries, even millennia.