Recently I taught a workshop on writing opening lines. I confronted participants with opening lines from well known writers. Such as this one, from Changing Places by David Lodge which I admire:
High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.
This puts you on the wrong footing. Are they going to crash into each other? Yet it immediately introduces David Lodge’s style, Changing Places is a comic novel with serious undercurrents. Besides it neatly introduces the two protagonists and the period.
So it is actually quite important, this first sentence. It defines the perspective and the time frame. So you are forced to make a few choices straightaway.
Let’s look at another famous opening line:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
From: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez
You think: we are not going to have a happy ending. It is about remembering the past and its influence on the present. This sets the scene in just one sentence. Marvellous!
We progressed to look at a few exercises. Do exaggerate in your opening line.
My ... is ..
This would turn into something like:
My mother is mad.
Next they had to pass on the sheet of paper to their neighbour who had to add to the sentence. The only requirement was to stick to the personage.
My .. is quite ... that’s why ....
My mother quite mad, that’s why she thinks she is a dishwasher.
My ... can also ...
My ... does not only ..., my ... can also ...
It took four or five iterations to construct a good opening line.
We moved on to very long opening lines. Everyone had to start with:
When Harry opened his eyes ... (now continue the sentence for as long as possible)
This produced wonderful results and it is a good way of finding out if you are keen on long sentences.
You need to keep the attention when writing long sentences. My advice: alternate between long and short lines. Diversity is in any case important.
Fifty minutes had sped by. I had just about time to tell them it was quite OK to start with a metaphor. Example: My mother is a dishwasher.
I concluded with a few recommendations from the heart.
‘A poem often starts with the first sentence popping into your head.’
‘A story doesn’t start with the first line but instead with a person or an idea.’
‘You are quite likely to spot your ideal opening line halfway down the first page.’
‘So scrap this first half page and launch your story in the middle of a dialogue, event or description. It gets the reader hooked instantly.’
Back at home I immediately addressed my dishwasher. (An opening line candidate)