First One-Liners

Should I start this blog off with a question, or should I say what's on my mind?

In my university education, majoring in creative writing, we've been told regularly that the first lines of a novel are the most important.

With this in mind, I often read the first sentence of a book when I'm wondering whether or not I should buy it. Sometimes that first sentence extends to the first paragraph, or the first page, or by now I've probably bought it and it's sitting on my shelf waiting in line to be read like a dozen other books.

This reading of the first line/sentence/page is exactly what I did when my brother and I visited Koorong earlier in the week on the pretense of buying Christmas gifts* but leaving with more stuff for ourselves than others. It wasn't exactly on purpose and I did get the things I was after but, while waiting for my brother to find a good book, I wandered off and found a couple for myself.

The first of these was called Four Views On: Christianity and Philosophy which I picked up out of interest and then went on to read the introduction. After a page, I was hooked. Not only was the title designed to make the reader look exceedingly clever but the actual text was free flowing and promised to explain some of the simpler points of philosophy (starting with philo- plus sophia equals "the love of wisdom") while including footnotes to other texts (including ones by Aristotle).

The other book I picked up was that biggie, the Bible. Of course, I already had a copy of the world's bestselling book, but I didn't have The Message translation/paraphrasing. Now I do. And let's go back to my opening sentence about opening sentences, because The Message has a great rephrasing of the classic, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth".

The Message paraphrase begins like this:

First this: God created the Heavens and Earth — all you see, all you don't see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God's spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.

Wow. Good start to the Word.

Did you notice the nothingness/bottomless/emptiness/blackness? Along with 'this' and 'abyss', the writer makes use of a technique called consonance (where there is a recurrence of similar-sounding consonants). The words and the rhythm they create in this opening paragraph don't end with a solid clunk but fade with a 'ess' sound. For me, this creates a feeling that there is something 'less' (as per the repeated sound); the feeling that something is lacking.

From here, the text launches into God creating Heaven and Earth, following the pattern of a paragraph beginning with "God spoke: "Light!"/"Sky!"/"Seperate!" etc with what he speaks forming (i.e. being made) in the middle of the paragraph before it ends with "Day One"/"Day Two"/Day Three" etc.

So: "God spoke: [something]! [something forms/happens]. It was evening, morning. Day [insert here].

In this section, which covers Chapter One of the Bible/history/timey-wimey, there's no repetition of the 'ess' sound and instead there are strong finishes to many of the words; solid clunks. Whatever is lacking is being filled up.

So that's just one opening line/paragraph/page/chapter as an example, and it's easy to tell that The Message was written/translated (but not authored) by a guy who claims to be a pastor, scholar, writer and poet.

Unfortunately, not all books start off so well.

My brother came up to me with a few books he was choosing between, with the intention of buying just one. The first started off with the single worded sentence of "diets". It promptly found its way back onto the shelf. Another began with a patriotic speech about 11/9, 2001 (9/11 2001 for the Americans reading) and we both agreed that it just wouldn't do. Back on the shelf. The one he finally got didn't exactly have a great opening, but neither did it have a horrible one. So the lesson here is that, if you can't write a great opening, then at least avoid writing a bad one.

Bad openings (and books) can be encouraging — if this got published then how hard can it be — but do you want some real intimidation inspiration? Well, look no further than this list just here below, where I insert the openings of some of my favourite books for you. Enjoy.

  • Ho Chi Minh City in the summer. Sweltering by anyone's standards. Needless to say, Artemis Fowl would not have been willing to put up with such discomfort if something extremely important had not been at stake. Important to the plan. (Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer)
  • Why at the beginning of things is there always light? (The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan)
  • In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. (The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien)
  • So. Here was this stain on the carpet, a wet patch big as a coffee table. He had no idea what it was or how it got there. But the sight of it put the wind right up him. Until now Thursday hadn't seemed quite so threatening. (Eyrie by Tim Winton)
  • You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. (If on a winter's night a traveller by Italo Calvino)

That last one is probably my favourite.

So what do these one liners do?

The opening of Artemis Fowl establishes the setting (Ho Chi Minh City, summer) while dropping you straight into the action and focusing on the book's namesake, Artemis Fowl. We are hooked when we read the words "the plan", since we're curious about it all: what's the plan and what's at stake?

Flanagan's opening draws a parallel with the Bible's beginning sentences of "let there be light", except for the fact that the narrator is questioning this assurance. It's apt for a story that explores suffering and forgiveness, darkness and light, themes that are common in the Bible. With such a parallel quickly established, the reader is immediately clued in to two of the novels main themes, though it doesn't promise to give a solid answer to, "why at the beginning of things is there always light?"

Imagine not knowing what a hobbit was. It's unthinkable now but if you didn't then that first sentence would immediately invite curiosity. Then, Tolkien follows this simple "once upon a time" styled line with one that goes on for a bit, with a nice rhythm and flow, to describe what the hole isn't like. Which begs the question, what is it like?

Tim Winton. That's probably the only one liner that you need to buy Eyrie, but when I was wondering which of his books I should get I decided on Eyrie because of that opening sentence: "So." Anyone who has the guts to put that as their first line is worth reading. At the same time, writers work on their first sentences more than any other, and the word "so" invites the feeling that something has preceded this moment, and Winton is simply resuming the conversation. But much like the main character, we're straining to remember that conversation and how we got here: So. What's this stain on the carpet shaped like "an exclamation mark", as Winton goes on to describe it? How did it get there?

Contrary to the opinions of one of my tutor's, Calvino is fantastic. That opening line — that book — is like nothing that I've ever read. I'd recommend you pick up If on a winter's night a traveller at your earliest convenience. If inconvenient, do so anyway.

What do these openings have in common? Questions. Not all of them ask questions straight out but they all position them in the mind of the reader. Even Calvino, who poises the question of, "what's going on here?"

So perhaps the best opening sentences make the reader curious. This could be done by dropping them straight into the story (in media res), by mentioning something new (a hobbit?), or through a different kind of prose. Either way, start your blog/story/novel/article off with a question and the reader will want answers.

But as every novel or story has a first line, so too does it have a last. To imitate (and thus flatter) Calvino, 'you are about to finish reading First One-Liners by Joel Gibson'.

JR


Footnotes:
*Yes, Christmas gifts. It's only been, what, a month since Christmas was supposed to happen and at this rate it'll be next Christmas by the time we have last Christmas. Just kidding, we've locked in a family gift giving/receiving date for latter this month.


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Photo of my Week

Where I post a photo that sums up an aspect of my week.

I just printed out a new image and I'll be looking to sell it when I'm back permanently in Perth (I came down to Narrogin today). This one (if you can't tell) is of King George Sound in Albany, with unusually calm waters leading up to the islands of Michaelmas and Breaksea. This was one of the few times I've been out on the water there with a mate and it's one of my favourite images I've made of the Albany area.

I've also got a print of the Perth skyline at sunset and one of a narrow Karijini gorge that will be for sale. These are printed and framed and the plan is that once those are gone I'll print and frame a set of new images. So these will be 'limited runs' so to speak. However, if you ever spot an image of mine that you would like taking up a section of your wall, or covering up that big hole you poked in it the other day but want to keep hidden (I know the feeling), then just let me know and we can work it out.

More details, including prices and pictures that actually show what the print is like, to come.

Joel Gibson

Read more posts by this author.

Perth, Western Australia

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