by Steven Cherecwich
Hello, dear Reader,
Before I get into my own column, I wanted to say something. We’re not getting many comments on these pages. We need you, the readers, to get involved. I see the web traffic, and people *ARE* visiting our site. So comment! I’m going to try something new this month and NOT give a review of each of the columns. Read them for yourself! Don’t pick and choose! Read them all, and read them now, dammit. They’re all good, they’ve all got something to say. So get to it, get reading. Thanks. I’ll get off my soapbox now.
I’ve talked before about why we write. However, have you ever considered what its like for the person on the other end? Have you ever put yourself in their shoes (or chair, or recliner, or bed, or bus) and tried to read your work from the perception of a person who *doesn’t* have your specific knowledge base?
As your audience reads your work, with a little bit of luck, a pinch of skill, a dab of critique, some magic might happen. It’s every authors goal that their subject lose themselves in the story. In the movies, this phenomenon is known as “suspension of disbelief” – that moment where you forget you’re in a theatre, and you’ve lost yourself in the film. Literature doesn’t really have an equivalent, unless you call it simply losing yourself in the moment.
Let’s take a look at how someone loses themselves in the moment. It’s different for everyone, of course, but there are some commonalities that are true for everyone. One of the things they taught me in college about writing term papers is that you want your first two sentences to summarize what the rest of the paper will be about. For example, “The depression of the 1920’s caused great strife and heartache among the poorer classes, while the rich still managed to feast.” This opening sentence draws you in, enticing you to wonder what is going to happen. In a college paper, it could be a statistical analysis of the sales patterns of potatoes versus steaks in 1925.
In a fiction story, this could same line could tell the tale of a young boy struggling on the streets, scavenging for food (a-la Angela’s Ashes). Or perhaps a tale of a boy trying to bring a little bit of sunshine to his family, (a-la The Painted House). The first sentence does not need to give away the plot, but it needs to set the stage well enough that the reader will at least move on to the second.
That said, lets look at the second sentence of this same tale. “With food so scarce many parents were forced to either give up their children to an orphanage or put their ten year olds to work.” Ahhh, now we’re getting somewhere. We could still be writing a college paper about class inequality, but we could just as easily be writing Oliver Twist.
These first few sentences aren’t just setting the stage, though. They’re setting the opinion of the reader for the next 200 pages. They say a first impression is made within ten seconds of meeting someone. The same could be said for a novel, a poem, or a college term paper. Those first few lines will form a lasting impression for not just this work, but for the readers impression of you as an author.
No pressure, though, ok?
IMHO (In My Humble Opinion), a favorite author is decided upon reading that first page, and from then on if that first page was well written you will always turn to that author first in the bookstore, even if that first book you read wasn’t what you expected…you’ll still remember that first page.
Here’s what some other authors have done:
“‘I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.’”
— Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
— William Gibson, Neuromancer
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
–– Jane Austen Pride and Predjudice
“Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.”
–– Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
“It was a pleasure to burn.”
—Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheight 541
“In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.”
—.David Markson,Wittgenstein’s Mistress
As I take my leave for the month, I encourage you to submit your favorite opening lines…and please, feel free to leave something from your own works.