First lines

The Atlantic posted an interesting article in which 22 authors talk about their favorite first lines of books. Eight of the authors queried are women, and only two of the favorite lines are by women, both cited by a woman author who cheated and responded with two favorites.

Despite these discouraging statistics, I plan to continue to write, even though I’m a woman myself.

It’s a scary thing to commit to your opening lines. I often use a paragraph that originally appeared further down in the the story, moving it to the start and revising to make it work. When I start a story, the first few paragraphs are usually just warm-up. Later I weave them into some exposition or discard them.

I generally give the author of a book I’m thinking about reading a few paragraphs to capture my interest. Not all of them are as pithy as the classic first line, “Call me Ishmael,” cited by several of the authors in the Atlantic article. Definitely a classic. Of course, pithiness isn’t everything, as Melville proved with practically every other word in Moby-Dick, which is nothing if not discursive.

Still, there’s no escaping the fact that those first paragraphs have to be good enough to get the reader involved. The ones I like best offer an engaging voice, a fascinating situation, and a promise of a glimpse into a different perspective, culture, or reality.

In the opening pages of Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Peter Hoeg gives us a detailed description of the freezing weather and places us in the mind of a woman trying to comfort another woman, who is reeling from the effects of drugs and alcohol and is grief stricken over the death of someone named Isaiah. They are outside in the cold, skimpily dressed, and our protagonist notes the disapproval of the pastor and the verger. Her narrative voice is cool, objective, and extremely observant. We learn that the occasion is a funeral, that there is uneasiness between Greenlanders and Danes, and that our protagonist feels a mission to find justice for the dead Isaiah, a child.

That’s pretty good for two pages, around 800 words.

I think I did OK with the opening for my first Chimera story, but I’m still not satisfied with the opening for the second one. I might have to leave it for a while, until the story develops some more.

Update: If you’re still thinking about Moby-Dick, check out these excerpts from critical essays about Melville’s masterpiece.

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