Saturday, August 3

Stephen King On What Makes An Opening Line Great

Stephen King On What Makes An Opening Line Great

"An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this," Stephen King.
Stephen King recently gave an interview in which he spoke about what qualities an opening line should have. It's a wonderful, and wonderfully informative, article, one I encourage you all to read: Why Stephen King Spends 'Months and Even Years' Writing Opening Sentences.

Here are a few tips:

1. Open in the middle of action


King says:
We've all heard the advice writing teachers give: Open a book in the middle of a dramatic or compelling situation, because right away you engage the reader's interest. This is what we call a "hook," and it's true, to a point.

2. Give the reader information about the characters and the story


King writes:
This sentence from James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice certainly plunges you into a specific time and place, just as something is happening:
"They threw me off the hay truck about noon."
Suddenly, you're right inside the story -- the speaker takes a lift on a hay truck and gets found out. But Cain pulls off so much more than a loaded setting -- and the best writers do. This sentence tells you more than you think it tells you. Nobody's riding on the hay truck because they bought a ticket. He's a basically a drifter, someone on the outskirts, someone who's going to steal and filch to get by. So you know a lot about him from the beginning, more than maybe registers in your conscious mind, and you start to get curious.

3. A good first sentence introduces the reader to the writer's style


King writes:
In "They threw me off the hay truck about noon," we can see right away that we're not going to indulge in a lot of foofaraw. There's not going to be much floridity in the language, no persiflage. The narrative vehicle is simple, lean (not to mention that the book you're holding is just 128 pages long). What a beautiful thing -- fast, clean, and deadly, like a bullet. We're intrigued by the promise that we're just going to zoom.

4. A great first sentence introduces the reader to the writer's voice


King writes:
With really good books, a powerful sense of voice is established in the first line. My favorite example is from Douglas Fairbairn's novel, Shoot, which begins with a confrontation in the woods. There are two groups of hunters from different parts of town. One gets shot accidentally, and over time tensions escalate. Later in the book, they meet again in the woods to wage war -- they re-enact Vietnam, essentially. And the story begins this way:
"This is what happened."
For me, this has always been the quintessential opening line. It's flat and clean as an affidavit. It establishes just what kind of speaker we're dealing with: someone willing to say, I will tell you the truth. I'll tell you the facts. I'll cut through the bullshit and show you exactly what happened. It suggests that there's an important story here, too, in a way that says to the reader: and you want to know.

A line like "This is what happened," doesn't actually say anything--there's zero action or context -- but it doesn't matter. It's a voice, and an invitation, that's very difficult for me to refuse. It's like finding a good friend who has valuable information to share. Here's somebody, it says, who can provide entertainment, an escape, and maybe even a way of looking at the world that will open your eyes. In fiction, that's irresistible. It's why we read.

5. A good first line will give the writer a way to break into the story


King writes:
I don't have a lot of books where that opening line is poetry or beautiful. Sometimes it's perfectly workman-like. You try to find something that's going to offer that crucial way in, any way in, whatever it is as long as it works. This approach is closer to what worked for in my new book, Doctor Sleep. All I remember is wanting to leapfrog from the timeframe of The Shining into the present by talking about presidents, without using their names. The peanut farmer president, the actor president, the president who played the saxophone, and so on. The sentence is:
On the second day of December, in a year when a Georgia peanut farmer was doing business in the White House, one of Colorado's great resort hotels burned to the ground.
It's supposed to do three things. It sets you in time. It sets you in place. And it recalls the ending of the book -- though I don't know it will do much good for people who only saw the movie, because the hotel doesn't burn in the movie. This isn't grand or elegant -- it's a door-opener, it's a table-setter. I was able to take the motif -- chronicle a series of important events quickly by linking them to presidential administrations -- to set the stage and begin the story. There's nothing "big" here. It's just one of those gracenotes you try to put in there so that the narrative has a feeling of balance, and it helped me find my way in.
Although I've quoted extensively from  Joe Fassler's interview with Stephen King I have left out far more than I included. As in his book, On Writing, King gives practical, easy to understand, advice on the art and craft of writing. A must read.

Photo credit: "around and around" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

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