The Atlantic has a great article about Stephen King and the opening lines to books. Essentially, he talks about how what attracts readers to authors is the authors’ distinctive voice – not style, not genre, not well-crafted writing, but their voice. And I agree completely. For instance, I read Lee Child because I love his choppy, minimalistic writing style. Or I read Khaled Hosseini because I expect an interesting levity and innocence juxtaposed with a deadly seriousness and brutal honesty. I read Chuck Palahniuk because I expect an in-your-fucking-face voice dripping with cynicism and sardonic wit. For instance, check out this opening to his book Choke:
If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.
After a couple pages, you won’t want to be here. So forget it. Go away. Get out while you’re still in one piece.
There has to be something better on television. Or since you have so much time on your hands, maybe you could take a night course. Become a doctor. You could make something out of yourself. Treat yourself to a dinner out. Color your hair.
You’re not getting any younger.
Of course, the opening line makes me want to proceed despite his prescient warning. Moreover, as King mentions over and over again in the article, such an opening line clearly differentiates Palahniuk’s voice from other authors.
Moreover, King says that he often works on perfecting that opening line and paragraph for days, months, and years at a time, if necessary. While quite obviously, there is more to a book than its opening, the opening is pretty damn important.
I have always taken a great care to put out great opening lines to my fiction/non-fiction pieces. I cannot begin a story without having that opening secured first. Now, he talks about the prevailing wisdom that you ought to “hook” your reader by dropping them into the middle of the action. I’ve taken to doing that in much of my writing.
For instance, in a nonfiction prom story I wrote, I began like this:
“Mom, I’m not putting on makeup,” I say, as I look into the mirror at my face.
My teacher at the time said it was one of the best openings she’s ever seen in a student’s paper. I’m proud of that because I do think it’s a good opening and does establish my voice pretty well.
In a fiction story, I started:
There was blood on my hands.
I hate that opening now. While I’ll like its brevity; I don’t like its banality. It’s too predictable.
Another fiction piece:
Day 766. Hard to believe it was two summers ago already.
Again, in hindsight I don’t like it. While starting with a seeming count of days may hook the reader, it doesn’t really help to establish my style or voice, right? The next sentence isn’t too bad. It’s a bit choppy and minimalistic, which I like (the influence of Child).
Here’s another nonfiction opening:
I smelled like syrup, was my first thought.
Once more, I greet the reader with certain brevity, but a bit of a hook, “Why does he smell like syrup?” I like this one somewhat; it works fairly well.
Honestly, opening lines are rough. I often feel like you’re trying to take this enormous story in your head, all the characters, the dialogue, the themes, the style you’re going for and your own voice and distill it down to one great sentence that hooks the reader in some form.
As such, it’s no wonder I often procrastinate when writing. I guess, for now, I’ll think of it as “warming up my voice.”