First lines often suck.
A bad first line introduces the subject, but don’t suggest the stakes of the game. A bad first line begins the story, but doesn’t engage your senses or rouse your interest. A bad first line is like a host who invites you into the house, and then turns off the lights.
The more I read as a writer of creative nonfiction, rather than as a scholar or academic, the more impressed I am with other authors’ technique. Reading for craft as well as content has made me aware of how many truly great writers there are out there, and how hard they work to produce writing that is both beautiful and compelling, both factually and emotionally true.
This week marks my first days back to teaching after a year-long sabbatical, so I’m thinking about what makes a good first. Here are a few:
My grandmother still keeps the hours of the whorehouse.
(Julianna Baggott, “Literary Murder”)
It was Christmas Eve 1926, the streets aglitter with snow and lights, when the man afraid of Santa Claus stumbled into the emergency room at New York City's Bellevue Hospital.
(Deborah Blum, “The Chemist’s War”)
Humans are tuned for relationship. The eyes, the skin, the tongue, ears, and nostrils -- all are gates where our body receives the nourishment of otherness.
(David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous)
The tyrant must steal sleep. He must vary the locations and times. He never sleeps in his palaces. He moves from secret bed to secret bed.
(Mark Bowden, “Tales of the Tyrant”)
What makes a good first line? It puts you in a scene, viscerally. A little bit of mystery is good. Funny works, but schmaltz rarely does. The first line of Alice Dreger’s compelling, sensitively written story, “Lavish Dwarf Entertainment” reads simply, “Dwarf walks into a bar.” A bit of naughty — social or sexual — hooks me, too.
Simplicity intrigues; but so do sustained rhetorical and technical flourishes, if they are well done. A beautiful phrase sticks in my head and makes me return, even if I’ve put down the book to make a sandwich or check the mail: Abram’s “the nourishment of otherness,” Bowden’s “secret bed to secret bed.”
Resonance with my own experience is idiosyncratic, unique to me, but crucial. Consider the first line to Rebecca Solnit’s “Insomnia”: “If only sleep could be hoarded, accumulated, and traded; if only you could store it up for a rainy day or borrow it from a friend or buy it on the street in little glassine bags.” I feel myself yearning for elusive sleep, willing to barter anything for just four hours…OK, three.
A great first line promises lush, delicious language; spareness and emotional transparency; or a salve for the struggles of being human. It is an invitation and a promise, a seduction and a covenant, a whisper and a handshake.