The Night Was Sultry, part 1—adventures in opening lines
The movie Throw Mama From the Train begins with a writer who is having severe writer’s block. He keeps typing the opening line, “The night was…” and then he can’t decide. Was the night hot? Was it moist? Was it hot and moist? And since the movie was made before the era of cheap personal computers, we watch the character, portrayed by Billy Crystal, typing on a physical piece of paper, then tearing it out and throwing it away again and again and again and…
We learn that he’s been stuck unable to write for years since his ex-wife stole his previous novel, got it published under her name, then said novel became an international bestseller. Now the wife is living the high life in Hawaii. In his day job, he teaches creative writing at a community college, and one of his students misunderstands a conversation they have about writing as a proposal that the student kill the teacher’s ex-wife, and the teacher will kill the student’s abusive (and senile and otherwise seriously ill) mother. Various horrible misadventures ensue, culminating at a moment when the two are discussing opening lines again, the teacher talks about the whether the opening line should be “The night is hot” or “The night is moist” or “The night was humid” or “The night was foggy” at which point the ill mother says, “The night is sultry!” Which is, of course the word that combines both meaning the teacher had been trying to go for.
I could write multiple blog posts about the movie: about the problematic way it handles the declining mental and physical health of the mother; about the problematic way it portrays most of the women in the story; about the many myths of writing it perpetuates. But today’s topic is going to be opening lines. Or, more broadly, openings in stories, because it’s about more than just the first sentence.
Among the things the movie does get right is how frustrating and utterly debilitating writer’s block can feel.
As awful as it feels, you should never get as frozen on the opening line as Crystal’s character does in the movie. A completed draft of a story with a bad opening sentence is better than a blank screen with nothing because you can’t think of the perfect opening. And the truth is that most of the classic opening lines in literature—the ones that get quoted in all those articles about the best opening lines—weren’t in the first, second, or even third draft of that story. The writer figured them out later, once they’d wrestled with the entire story for a while.
There are several things to consider about the opening of your story that are more important than picking just the perfect word. Even the opening sentence isn’t necessarily important. If you’re working on a short story, then eventually, yes, you need to come up with a nice hook in the opening sentence. But if you’re writing a novella or a novel, you will wind up worrying more about the opening paragraphs. Readers expect a longer story of have more characters, subplots, and complexity, so they’re more likely to stick through several paragraphs before they need to be hooked.
The first question is where to begin. This may seem like an easy one, but let me tell you from my years reading the slush piles of several small publications, many people don’t have any clue where to begin the story. “But I started at the beginning!” is the usual response I would get when explaining to someone they had started at the wrong place. There is the classic of beginning in the wrong place: an alarm clock rings, the character wakes up and the author expects the reader to slog through many paragraphs (or pages) of description of the character brushing their teeth, eating breakfast and so on. But thats not the only way that writers start at a spot that seems like the beginning.
I encountered the best (or worst) example of how not to do this back when I was a university student. For reasons too complex to go into here, I was taking a Creative Writing class that was aimed at a much less advanced writer than I was, but that I needed to finish before I could get into other classes. And the professor had seen my work and knew it was too basic, so she had let me into the class on the condition that any time it was my turn to comment on someone else’s story I would tell the whole truth of what I thought. Yes, that’s right, she made me the designated bad guy. Anyway, one day a guy is reading a story, and it begins by describing the trophies and mementos of high school on his desk and shelves at home. At the bottom of the first page he finally mentions the game ball from a football game, his most prize possession, and then he starts describing the football game beginning from the opening kickoff. It was absolutely the most boring sh*t for nine more pages until finally he came to the line, “We had to move the ball 20 yards in 8 seconds.” Which should have been the opening.
The reasons why the first 10 pages of this story were awful was because first: none of the rest of the mementos from his school year had the slightest thing to do with the story. Second: to anyone who knows anything about football, knowing that our narrator has the game ball already tells us the ending—to wit, the narrator is going to make the play that wins the game. Third: even to a hard core football fan, a narration of a game whose ending we already know is just not interesting enough to sustain 10+ pages of following. The beginning of this kind of story is going to be where the drama hits. In that case, “We had to move the ball 20 yards in 8 seconds.”
Which isn’t to say that explaining any other parts of the game are worthless, you just need to hook the reader first. That line is something that even a non-football fan recognizes as a challenge. Then your second sentence can be explain that this was a game against your big cross-town rivals, and how every year for as long as you can remember this was the game that everyone attended, and then explain which position on the team the narrator plays, and then summarize some of the game up to that point, in order to set the scene and introduce characters. Up until that “We had to move the ball 20 yards in 8 seconds” moment, it was just one more sportsball game being played by people the readers doesn’t know or care about. And laid out in that order, the reader doesn’t know why he ought to care.
But if you first hook the reader with the drama, then you can fill in details. And the reader will understand that this is all stuff to help them understand the answer to the questions the opening lines raised: Who is this? Will they succeed? If they succeed, how will they?
So the first rule about opening lines is: the beginning isn’t necessarily the chronological beginning of your character’s day or involvement in the events, it is the moment where the protagonist is confronted by the problem. Some people like to put it this way: start the story the moment your character is hit in the head with a brick, not back at the moment someone started manufacturing the brick.
Which isn’t to say that every story has to begin with dramatic action… but we’ll get into that in part 2!