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How to Ruin the First Line

Posted by estevennewby@yahoo.com on August 15, 2013 at 6:10 PM

There is no shortage of great opening lines in fiction. Consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring:


When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.


Or Stephen King’s The Stand:




The first is a wonderful line for its rural simplicity. Not only does it set the stage for a pivotal event, but it reveals something of the Shire-folk: any people who would use a number like eleventy-first can’t take themselves too seriously. The second example works so well because of its brevity. Here we have no context for the quote, which illustrates without words the ambiguous experience of being woken up in the middle of the night.


I’m attracted to the opening lines of stories. I’m always in awe or wonder at the way in which the author has chosen to bring us into their creation. Is it direct? Do they ask us to harbor a thought before we flow in the adventure? I have always favored the simpler, to-the-point beginning myself. Yet throughout the years I’ve stumbled across some writers who, in spite of their talent, manage to make the experience of coming into their work nothing short of painful. And some, believe it or not, do it on purpose. So this blog post isn’t about really good opening lines. It’s about that other kind.


The first and easiest way to mar the beginning is to use a tired cliché. Hit the reader with something they’ve heard a million times before. “Once upon a time…” is synonymous with fairy tales and epic adventures. It has the air of enchantment and timelessness about it. The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s been a staple of oral story telling traditions since 1380. All six Star Wars movies opened with a variation of it: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”


Or how about, “It was a dark and stormy night…”? This one’s suspenseful. It boldly implies an ominous, intangible threat. It has been used in two successful novels: in Paul Clifford, it set the stage for the tale of forbidden love in the time of the French Revolution. And it was the background to Meg’s misery shortly before jaunting off across the universe with centaurs and old women in A Wrinkle in Time. Even Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s beagle, used the line in several of his novel attempts.


A lot of stories begin with clichés because the author is trying to invoke a well-known mood or spirit. We all know how miserable it is to be caught outside on a rainy night. We all know what it means to be “dog tired” or “mad as hell”. The inherent danger of invoking a cliché, though, is that it draws attention to itself as an unoriginal sentiment. That might not be a problem if it occurs now and again deep in the story, where a reader’s momentum might carry them past it without much thought, but if they’re hit with it at the point of entry, it could give them cause to wonder if, like the opening line, the rest of the story is equally unoriginal.


The second way I’ve found that a lot of writer’s botch the beginning is with a ridiculously long and ultimately pointless sentence. Consider The Origin, Irving Stone’s biographical novel of Charles Darwin:


He stood before his mahogany shaving stand, stirred his brush in the white shaving bowl with blue flowers which sat on a circular shelf, added hot water from a copper jug, lathered his light-complected face and then opened his finely honed steel razor with its ebony handle.


Not only does it make a shopping list look like a compelling read, but it chronicles nothing of consequence. Darwin doesn’t have any scientific insights while shaving, he doesn’t even knick his jugular. He does go on to brush his hair and then catches the scent a goose pie cooking. This opening passage, though subtle, also employs a cliché: he’s standing in front of a mirror, which allows the narrator to give us ample description of his face.


The third common way writers screw up at the starting line is to mix metaphors. This strategy is simple: toss a handful metaphors or similes into the blender and see what comes out. Here’s one example from an otherwise excellent novel from Greg Bear, Darwin’s Radio:


The flat afternoon sky spread over the black and grey mountains like a stage backdrop, the color of a dog’s pale crazy eye.


The problem here is that my imaginative association is pulled in two different directions at once – stage props and psychotic animals – neither one of them have anything to do with the sky. Then I have to wonder what a dog’s “pale crazy eye” looks like. Is it shifty? Does it twitch? These associations don’t help me get into the spirit of mountain climbing.


Or how about this one, from Jane Jensen’s Dante’s Equation:


Denton Wyle was seriously reexamining his choices. His fingers were wrapped like living clamps around a pole, his blonde hair dribbled water down his patrician nose, and his back pressed hard against the cabin of the rescue ship as sea spray slapped him on the cheeks like an outraged Englishman and the deck beneath his feet pitched like a bucking bronco.


Here we have a sentence that invokes vice-grips made of flesh, water running down a nose that belongs to Roman aristocracy, an irate Englishman, and an American rodeo horse. I have a difficult time imagining a mash up of such disparate elements, except perhaps in a Monty Python cartoon. The line might have worked if the rest of the novel maintained that tongue-in-cheek attitude, but not so. To give Jane Jensen credit, her book picked up pretty quickly, and proved to be a very good story.


If I could give one piece of advice to anyone thinking of writing fiction: Don’t use any metaphors or similes your opening line. If you must, limit it only to one, and try to keep it relevant to the story/scene. In The Sign, Raymond Khoury had one of his characters carry out a gruesome task “like a cyborg on a mission”, even though the book had nothing to do with cyborgs. Introducing incongruent elements, even for the sake of a metaphor, can compromise that carefully maintained suspended disbelief. And remember: Metaphors and similes are like cologne, use them sparingly.


Of course there are those who deliberately crank out the worst possible opening lines. And a few make a fair bit of money at it, too. Since 1982, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest has asked for submissions of the baddest of the bad. Named after George Bulwer-Lytton, who first penned those oft plagiarized words, “It was a dark and stormy night…”, the contest has received thousands of entries from all over the world. Here are a few of the winning entries below:


As an ornithologist, George was fascinated by the fact that urine and feces mix in bird’s rectums to form a unified, homogenous slurry that is expelled through defecation, although eyeing Greta’s face, and sensing the reaction of the congregation, he immediately realized he should have used a different analogy to describe their relationship in his wedding vows.

David Pepper, Hermosa Beach, California


He swaggered into the room (in which he was now the “smartest guy”) with a certain Wikipedic insouciance, and without skipping a beat made a beeline towards Dorothy, busting right through her knot of admirers, and she threw her arms around him and gave him a passionate though slightly tickly kiss, moaning softly, “Oooohh, Scarecrow!”

David S. Nelson, Falls Church, VA


The drugged parrots pelted the village like a hellish rain of feathered fanny packs stuffed with claws and porridge, rendering Claudia’s makeshift rabbit-skin umbrella more symbolic than anything else.

Jeff Colbin, West Chester, PA


Care to share any really bad book beginnings you’ve encountered? Post them in the comments below.


Categories: film & book

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