Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Is that a gun in your pocket . . .

by Joe Moore

. . . or are you just happy to see me? Mae West got our attention with one of the most famous opening lines in history. So how important is a first line? In life, some people call them icebreakers, and they can mean the difference between getting a date with that just-right person or nailing that dream job. It can set the tone for a relationship with your new end-laws or neighbors. The more important an event, the more importance we place on it.

In a novel, the first line can be a killer or a clunker. It can lay there like an overcooked piece of fish or fire up the imagination and demand that the second line be read and the third . . . It can produce a ho-hum yawn or cause a gasp. And it is probably the most overworked, over written string of words in a writer’s life.

Some first lines drift away like smoke on an autumn breeze. Others laser themselves in our gray matter to be remembered and recalled until the grave. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of time . . .” from Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities comes to mind. The problem with that one is, back in school I was told it was a great first line. Admittedly it is, but what I’m talking about here are the ones that we discover on our own. The treasures in the attic or the gems buried in the bottom of the old dresser bought at a flea market.

When I was in high school, I picked up a novel and read the first line, and knew in an instant that I would never forget it. That I would be able to recite it anytime, anywhere for the rest of my life. And because of that line, I devoured the rest of the book and every other novel the author wrote. That first line was a black hole that sucked me in. It was an 11-word mixture of mystery, suspense, intrigue, darkness, and magic. As a writer, I aspire to someday writing a first line as good. For now that’s only a distant dream, but one I never stop working toward. Here’s that first line:

“The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm.” Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.

What’s your favorite first line?


Deb Baker said...

This is something we all should know, but it's so easy to forget how important our own first lines are.
One of my favorites is from Orwell's 1984.

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

Bill Cameron said...

"Many years later, as he faced the first squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

"He loved to watch fat women dance." Goodnight, Irene by Jan Burke.

Mark Combes said...

I'll give a shout out to one of our own!

"Cape Weathers just wanted to know what time is was before he died."

-Stealing the Dragon
Tim Maleeny

G.M. Malliet said...

"Call me Ishmael."

Candy Calvert said...

"One hot August Thursday afternoon, Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband's Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace bikini underpants."

Tell Me Lies, Jennifer Crusie

Mark Terry said...

I can't bare to give just one. Here's my favorite 3.

"The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming."
--Glitz by Elmore Leonard

"I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer's headless body in the trunk, and all the time I'm thinking I should've put some plastic down."
--Gun Monkeys by Victor Gischler

"I inherited my brother's life."
--Straight by Dick Francis

And I gotta tell you, go ahead, pick any of those books up, read the first paragraph (or the entire book for that matter) and those first lines are promises fulfilled.

Joe Moore said...

Thanks, everyone. All wonderful openers. I'll bet the ratio of rewriting the first line or paragraph of a book compared to the rest of the manuscript has got to be 100-1. Mark, the line from Glitz is absolutely brilliant. There's no way anyone could read that and not want to read line 2 and 3 and . . .

Julia Buckley said...

I love the first line of The Stranger. "Maman died today."

Also, Joe, I love the Chuck Connors poster. The Rifleman was not my favorite, though--I fell in love with Chuck Connors in a little-known show called Cowboy in Africa. Anyone remember that one? Anyone?

Susan Goodwill said...

I don't know Cowboy in Africa, Julia, but I'm off to Google it after I post.
Chuck Connor, hah! Our blog is so cool and campy!!
And I must say, "Something Wicked" sucked me right in, too, Joe. Anything Bradbury did with his lightning rods and illustrated men and martians and veldts and bats and dandelion wines, well, he's Bradbury. Nuff said.
So then I'm thinking-- I know my favorite, the Crusie line about the underpants. And I read on.
Candy, all I can say, is great minds think alike. But I always loved the second line, too: "They weren't hers."
She wrote that for a class assignment to write a killer first line at OSU. That woman's good at homework.

Karen MacInerney said...

Okay, I have to admit this, even though it's a little embarrassing.

Between the "Is that a gun in your pocket..." title and the positioning of the tree trunk (or whatever it is) in the first cover shot, I really wasn't sure what this post was going to be about.

What a relief. :)