In search of the perfect opening line

He got game. Ernest Hemingway on safari.

He got game.
Ernest Hemingway on safari.

IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a lingual man in possession of an empty page must be in want of a good opening line.

This crossed my mind recently while browsing through some short stories and, more pressingly, when I sat to write this post.

As a journalist my default setting is usually to put the most important info in the first line.

Writers of fiction, novels or short stories, require a different approach.

Some of my favourite fictional first lines are a short, shocking stab. Others are longer, introducing an image or setting a mood. Others yet bear comparison to a short poem.

Some are one line, some are more.

The best are always singular, the very best perfect. But no good ones are incidental.

Analysing what makes a perfect opening line is difficult; the best way to do it is to simply read the best examples, cut loose from their source titles.

With this in mind I decided to assemble my top five.

Here they are, with a hint to the work in question afterwards.

_____

“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”

So begins one Welshman’s childhood chronicle.

_____

A whale of a time. Herman Melville.

A whale of a time.
Herman Melville.

“It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.”

A nothing that comes back to haunt one big-game hunter – and his wife.

_____

“Call me Ishmael”.

The only time anyone does, it turns out.

_____

“Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. I reflected on the subject of my spare-time literary activities. One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with.”

The first of three opening lines, one for each hero.

_____

His sheet metal memory. John Steinbeck.

His sheet metal memory.
John Steinbeck.

And, finally.

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and the scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants, and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.”

So the story of Mack and the boys, and all humanity, begins.

_____

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One thought on “In search of the perfect opening line

  1. […] the inspiration for ‘Doc’ in the novel Cannery Row, had been killed in a car crash in […]

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