One liners: not just for the sleazy 14 Comments

I know I’m not the only one, but man, I love opening lines. No, not the ones proffered across beer-soaked CBD bars by suits baring their canines and wallets, but the beginning lines of stories. Whether it be short fiction or novels (or even nonfiction), the first words of a story can really set up your whole experience – whether it be good or bad.

For readers, and for writers, the first line of a story is important. Sinead Gleeson from the Irish Times asked eight celebrated authors what a first line means to them, and there are some fantastic responses. Take Paul Murray:

It pretty much goes without saying that the first line of a book is really important. When you’re a young, unpublished writer you hear all the time that agents and editors won’t keep reading a manuscript if the first line is bad, so you learn early on, whatever problems the rest of the book might have, to make sure that first line is good. In terms of the novel itself the first sentence has to do a lot of work – it needs to grab the reader’s attention, and also it needs to encapsulate in some way what the book is about. That said, you probably shouldn’t get too obsessed with it, at least not until you’ve finished the rest of the book.

The most interesting aspect of this topic is that every writer and every reader has a different opinion. Some think the first sentence of a story is the most important, while others believe the opposite.

A while ago I was reading Peter Carey’s Collected Stories, and so taken was I with his opening lines that I posted them all online.

Now, having just finished Wells Tower’s celebrated short fiction collection of 2009, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, I feel compelled to do the same again. Here are the openings to each of Tower’s stories:

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‘Bob Munroe woke up on his face. His jaw hurt and morning birds were yelling and there was a real discomfort in his underpants.’

‘Sometimes, sometimes, after six or so large drinks, it seems like a sane idea to call my little brother on the phone.’

‘The phone rang late, my stepmother again. “Do you ever think about all the ones who you didn’t let them have you?”‘

‘When Jane left me for Barry Kramer, it was a heavy kind of hurt, but by the time she took up with him, there wasn’t a whole lot left of us.’

‘Good morning. You have not slept well. Don’t open your eyes. Stick out your tongue. Search for the little sore on your upper lip. Pray that it healed in the night.’

‘My daughter, the very first night I was in her house, she wanted right off to put me in a state of fear.’

‘The bell on the cat’s collar roused her. He’d brought her something: a baby pigeon stolen from its nest, mauled and draped on Jacey’s pillowcase.’

‘Now it’s dark. The sun has slipped behind the orange groves, disclosing the garbled rainbow of carnival rides.’

‘Just as we were all getting back into the mainland domestic groove, somebody started in with dragons and crop blights from across the Northern Sea.’

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Want to read more about first lines? Then have a squiz at:

the American Book Review’s 100 Best First Lines from Novels. These are some of the more renowned and celebrated openings.

Also, Alternative Reel have compiled their Top 10 Most Outrageous Opening Lines in Literature, which are fun (and outrageous?).

And NPR has an old radio program that features Seattle Librarian Nancy Pearl’s Favourite Literary Opening Lines which have been taken from lesser-known titles.

also, Chris Currie conducted a great interview series with Wells Tower if you’re keen to find out more about the man.

  • http://www.toothsoup.com phill

    Now those are some mighty fine opening lines. I’ll have to save my pennies to grab a copy.

    Apart from the usual suspects, one of my favourite first lines is from Alice Sebold’s The Almost Moon: ‘When all was said and done, killing my mother came easily.’ Brilliant hook.

  • Jodie Kinnersley

    What an interesting idea placing all the first lines next to each other. It says a lot about a writer’s style.

    No conversaton about first lines is complete without mentioning Nabokov and Kafka. We’ve all heard them but that’s because they are seriously good!

    “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

    And now I’m breathless reading that. The syntax grabs you right where it counts.

    And “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible bug”

    There’s plenty of translatons but it’s just such a shocking revelation right there that it always triggers the imagination.

    • http://www.toothsoup.com phill

      Heh, I agree that Nabokov’s start is amazing, but I’ve always been confused as to how he says Lolita to have the described mouth actions happen? My tongue hits my teeth on the first two taps, then the palette on the last! :/ I think it’s a case of artistic license 😀

    • http://samuelcooney.wordpress.com/ sam

      i’m at work, and i’ve been sitting here for the last few minutes practising the different ways to say lolita. phill – originally i thought you were right – if you over-pronunciate the word, you definitely palette-tap your way, but after a while i realised that Nabokov’s way works too.

      very, very interesting.

    • Jodie Kinnersley

      Oh dear, the inner linguistics nerd in me is not hard to bring out. I’ve never thought it through before but let’s see if I can bring back that one semester of phonetics.

      I think l and t are both artculated at the alveolar which is that ridge just above the teeth. So yes, I think old Vlad is wrong there about the tongue taking a trip down to the teeth.

      But, if think more about it, he could be talking more about the vowels. In the first two syllables the vowels are said with the tongue at the front of the mouth and towards the roof of the mouth and in the third (if overpronounced) the tongue is at the back of the mouth and away from the roof of the mouth. This means that the tongue moves as far away as possible from the alveolar place of the t. Maybe it’s this movement of the tongue that takes the trip down?

      Actually, I give up. This stuff is beyond me. Plus, I don’t know Humbert’s accent so all rather pointless.

    • http://www.expressmedia.org.au/voiceworks/ Johannes Jakob

      I think you’re right about the vowels having to do with it, because of course you can still make a lateral on the hard plate to get an l sound – it feels weird and sounds a bit dumb, but your tongue doesn’t move as far for the o. But when you get to the ee and the t, they pretty much have to happen on the alveolar, so on the second l you already start moving down to get ready for them.

      Oh God, when did we turn into such nerds?

    • Jodie Kinnersley

      phill, I’m not sure if we’ve ever met but you should know that you are now my nemesis. I keep mouthing out Lolita now and I can’t read that line properly. It’s like when you someone points out an annoying habit a mutual friend has. You never noticed it before but now it drives you nuts.

    • http://www.expressmedia.org.au/voiceworks/ Johannes Jakob

      There’s also an arrow in the Fedex logo between the e and the x. This is another thing that cannot be unseen once you’ve been told.

  • Sam

    Edward Bulwer-Lytton: “It was a dark and stormy night…”

    This site, run by the University of San José, runs an annual competition for the worst opening line of a story or novel.

    http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/

  • Jodie Kinnersley

    When did we become nerds? It may be deeply ingrained, at least for me.

    A lateral on the hard palate? I don’t think it’s an English consonant and that’s why it feels so weird.

    I’m startng to remember what I hate about phonetics. I’m happy to put it down to Humbert Humbert being an unreliable narrator. Do not trust him!

    • http://www.toothsoup.com phill

      Heh, sorry Jodie! But I remember it bugging me when I first read it (not to the point of stopping reading, but a little niggle), so I wanted to see if anyone had any thoughts. Seems like a lot of people have!

      Doing a Google search today, I did find a similar page exploring the issue here: http://thesecondpass.com/?p=4085, where someone quote Nabokov as having said that Lolita “should not be pronounced as…most Americans pronounce it: Low-lee-ta, with a heavy, clammy L and a long O. No, the first syllable should be as in ‘lollipop,’ the L liquid and delicate, the ‘lee’ not too sharp. Spaniards and Italians pronounce it, of course, with exactly the necessary note of archness and caress.”

      So there you go, straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. (:

    • Jodie Kinnersley

      Thanks phil, that’s a great link. You have redeemed yourself.

      Nabokov describes it delightfully as expected but the explanation from Dr David Parkinson is so complete and so readable. I think it might be worthwhile repeating it here in full in the interest of closing the discussion. Thank you, David (and his blog is http://slowcoast.ca/ if interested):

      “This is Nabokov using Humbert to situate Humbert culturally and erotically, in one tiny masterstroke of metalinguistic observation.

      The first ‘l’, being followed by a mid-high back vowel, is pronounced as a so-called ‘dark’ ‘l’, with the tongue bunched up near the soft palate in anticipation of the following back vowel. No Frenchman would pronounce the sequence ‘lo’ with this dark ‘l’, so here we have a taste of the Americanized Humbert.

      The second ‘l’, being followed by a high front vowel, is pronounced as a ‘light’ ‘l’, more akin to the French ‘l’ that presumably comes naturally to Humbert: the tip of tongue resting on the alveolar ridge, blade of the tongue raised in anticipation of the following vowel.

      The ‘t’ would more naturally be pronounced in the same spot as the second ‘l’ for Humbert the American; but for Humbert the French native speaker it is more likely to be a dental or alveodental stop, with the tip of the tongue, as he says, “tap[ping] at three on the teeth.”

      In fact, it’s most likely for the unfastidious N. American to pronounce this ‘t’ as a so-called flap, since it precedes an unstressed vowel. That Humbert pronounces it carefully enough to make it a proper dental stop is a small but telling symptom of his infatuation.

      HTH,
      David Parkinson
      PhD, Linguistics (Cornell 1999)”

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