Memorable First Lines – Weekly Writing Challenge

11 09 2012
English: Cover of serial "Tale of Two Cit...

English: Cover of serial “Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week’s writing challenge asks us to focus on the author  who  has   influenced us most, for me an almost impossible task.   So many authors, so many  stories  have influenced me throughout these  years beginning with the ones my mother read or told me on her lap.  How could I choose just one?  So I thought I might  begin this week’s challenge  with a few  great opening lines from some favorite books,  lines  I’d put on my top  100 list and why.

A good place to start is John Irving’s opening sentence in A Prayer For Owen Meany .   If your interest is not pricked by this line  “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice-not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a christian because of Owen Meany.” you were obviously born severely deficient in curiosity.  When I got to the end of the story,  to that very last line in the book, that first line  in the book immediately sprang up  in my mind and I marveled at the serendipity.  “Kudo’s”  I said to the author. I  forgave him for the burden of  his wordiness and any other  small grievances I might  have had as a reader as it was apparent that the ending was known to him from the beginning.  That story was so well crafted there seemed no other reasonable way for the book to end.  Since then I’ve read 5 more of the 12 novels he’s written over the past 40 years.  He remains a favorite.

Recently I read an interview he had given at Good Reads in 2009 in which he explained  his writing process; “For 12 novels the last sentence has come first, and not even the punctuation has changed. From that last sentence I make my way in reverse through the plot, because there always is a plot—I love plot—to where I think the story should begin…..And once I get that first sentence, I can begin writing the novel.  By then I know the whole story and all the important characters; how and where they meet, when their paths cross again.”

Of course.

Another favorite author wrote this  first line “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” in  Love In The Time Of Cholera. The smell of almonds, in all it’s darkest evocations,  permeate the story.  Gabriel García Márquez  leaves no doubt that he  also knew the ending of his story before he ever put the first word of it down on paper.

With this concise, sparse line from The Gunslinger, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Stephen King  invites you into his unknown territory with a sense of deep  foreboding.  King is the master of a great read with an acute understanding of  people, both as characters and as his readers. He knows how to crook the finger to beckon us carefully  into the dark. Contrariwise it him took 12 1/2 years to finish this dark adventure begun on a ream of bright green paper found at the library.  While the rough outline of this story seems  constant throughout it’s  many revisions I find it hard to  believe the last line had been written in  beginning.

Another concise  line  “My name is Ismael” in Melville’s Moby Dick, gives us absolutely no clue to the story and we are left to pilfer around in the words a little to see if we’ll continue. This first line while widely known would not make my list although the book is a favorite. The fourth line however, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”  will probably hook you and could have been a great opening line.

Sometimes what I like best about an author is his ability to construct a masterful sentence as quoted above.  Or one like  Charles Dickens  used to open  A Tale of Two Cities    ” It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” with it’s cadence and dichotomy.

A more modern opener  is the one  John Hawkes used to launch  his 1964, Second Skin,  “I will tell you in a few words who I am: lover of the hummingbird that darts to the flower beyond the rotted sill where my feet are propped; lover of bright needlepoint and the bright stitching fingers of humorless old ladies bent to their sweet and infamous designs; lover of parasols made from the same puffy stuff as a young girl’s underdrawers; still lover of that small naval boat which somehow survived the distressing years of my life between her decks or in her pilothouse; and also lover of poor dear black Sonny, my mess boy, fellow victim and confidant, and of my wife and child. But most of all, lover of my harmless and sanguine self. ” I’ve included this second line too because I  particularly like the  truth in it.

Many of the best novels don’t have great opening lines of course, relying instead on the force of it’s characters or a story too  compelling to ignore. But those that do are rarely forgotten by readers and are the ones we as writers aspire to.


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