Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My own opening lines

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For a writer, there’s nothing more terrifying than a blank page—especially when you know that this page is only the first of three hundred or so that need to be filled. This gives a novel’s first sentence, whatever form it takes, a particularly talismanic quality. As Joan Didion points out, once you write that opening line, doors are already closing. Where once the possibilities seemed limitless, now you’re locking yourself down. So that first sentence had better be damned good.

Or so you tell yourself. In reality, it’s unlikely that the first version of a novel’s opening lines will bear any resemblance to their appearance in the final draft. Like all sentences, they will be polished, edited, even cut altogether. With Kamera, which was far from my first novel—though it will be the first to be published—it took me months of fiddling before I came up with an opening that I liked, and even then, I had my doubts. Here’s what it looked like in the end:

Andrey was nearly at the border when he ran into the thieves. By then, he had been on the road for three days. As a rule, he was a careful driver, but at some point in the past hour, his mind had wandered, and as he was coming over a low rise, he almost collided with two cars that were parked in the road ahead.

Now, this opening may never top the American Book Review list, but for what it is, I think it works. When I wrote it, as usual, James M. Cain was at the back of my mind: I wanted to get the reader into the story quickly, cleanly, and without a lot of fuss. And I didn’t want to overwhelm the reader with information. Note, for instance, that I don’t say where the border is. In my first draft, I mentioned that Andrey was “ten kilometers north of the Ukrainian border, just outside Shebekino,” but I eventually decided that too many specifics would only slow the opening of the story down. I hoped that the name “Andrey” by itself would evoke a location, and that the word “thieves” would have resonances of its own. And above all, I hoped that the initial situation was interesting enough that the reader would go on to the next paragraph.

For a short story, the challenges are slightly different. Just as the opening moments of a television show need to grab the viewer’s attention in a way that those of a movie do not, a short story generally needs to begin with more of a narrative hook. Usually, this hook can take the form of implied—which is more interesting than overt—action or violence; an unusual detail; or a striking line of dialogue. And it’s best not to appear to try too hard. An author who plants his narrative hooks too blatantly can seem like a college freshman pawing artlessly at a gidle, when, as John Gardner says, he should be more like a magician effortlessly forcing cards into his victim’s hand. Here’s how I opened “The Last Resort,” a novelette that appeared in the September 2009 issue of Analog:

The shotgun was not aimed directly at Helki, but its barrel was pointed in her direction, which was more than enough for her to take it personally.

Reading this sentence again now, it strikes me that maybe I was, in fact, trying a little too hard. In any case, though, the story sold, which is more than I can say for many others, and readers seemed to like it well enough. Here, the narrative hook is the threat of implied violence, or at least aggression, and perhaps—or so I’d like to think—a hint of the main character’s personality. Given the choice, though, I prefer to open with something incrementally more subtle. Here’s what I wrote for “Kawataro,” which is scheduled to appear in Analog in June:

The kawataro stood at the side of the road. Hakaru saw it for the first time as he was trudging along the highway, suitcase rolling behind him in the rain. It had been half a mile by foot from the train station, and although he had been looking for the turnoff to the village, it was so narrow, less than six paces wide, that he was on the point of walking past it entirely when the statue caught his eye.

Here, the narrative hook rests solely on the word “kawataro,” which I assume is unfamiliar to most readers, who would hopefully read onward to discover what a kawataro was. (Note that it’s important not to be too coy about this. I explain what a kawataro is, sort of, in the following paragraph. A writer who refuses to explain important details for an extended run of pages, solely for the purpose of prolonging the suspense, is only going to annoy the reader.) Ideally, the hint of an unusual setting, which turns out to be a small fishing village in Japan, works as a hook as well.

As for the last kind of narrative hook, dialogue, it’s what I use at the opening of “The Boneless One,” which I expect will appear in Analog by the end of the year:

“Before we go on deck, I should make one thing clear,” Ray Wiley said. “We’re nowhere near the Bermuda Triangle.”

A little cute, maybe, but I think it works. As with everything else in writing, such things are a matter of taste, and every writer ends up developing his or her own personal approach to the problem. In the end, with practice, there’s something a little mechanical about writing good first sentences—which is why even the best opening lines, if too carefully calibrated to arouse the reader’s interest, can seem like something of an exercise. Much less mechanical is the question of where to begin the story itself, which I’ll be discussing in more detail tomorrow.

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