Put the Pedal to the Metal

On beginnings


in Beyond Words


Once upon a time, there was time. There was time for a contented reader to sit beside a fire in the fireplace, sip a cognac, and turn the pages of Michel de Montaigne’s marvelous essays. There was time to soak in some wisdom. There was time to absorb the author through his writing. Those days and evenings have gone. Technology stole them.

This is not to say that technology does not have its uses. It does, of course. But though there are uses, much is useless. For starters, information is frequently wrong or scrambled. Or it arrives, as television news often does, in advance of verified facts. Wisdom is the better and safer commodity; it doesn’t crash. Maybe we should have a moment of silence to remember what it felt like to read in leisure, not haste. To remember the pleasure of smelling, touching, palpating a real book. To linger at the end of a paragraph and read it over again, assessing its importance and place in the world.

That was then. This is now:

People who write books about how to write usually advise us to cut to the action as quickly as possible, and in general, that is good advice, although it has not always been good advice. What makes it good advice these days is that contemporary readers have little time to read. They squirm in their seats, impatiently waiting for something exciting to take their minds off all the other stuff we have to do, such as check our cellphones, keep up with social media, Tweet, watch the news, shop online. In fact, today’s reader is exhausted even before he begins to read. What he wants is to be carried away from his life into a dream that will subsume his life, as if he himself is merely a footnote, but a footnote to large truths, manifest beauty, and love, whether that love is passionate, comfortable, difficult, dangerous, homely, or any other kind of love. (And there are many kinds of love.)

So, pretty much, these days, the writer has to put the metal to the pedal. Drive zero to 60. Shake a leg.

And now our moment of silence is up, and there’s nothing for it but to fit your foot to the accelerator. Get ready to drive zero to 60 in a single sentence. A lot of readers like that.

Or wait . . . you can begin, as the universe did, with a big bang. That’s good, too.

You can make a large statement, usually thematic, before you move into details, as many novels in the 19th century did.

You can begin in media res. (Which means beginning in the middle, which is to say beginning after the beginning.)

Let’s look at some of these openings. I expect most of you have already read the books I’ve taken them from, or if not, that you have previously heard these famous words. It won’t take long to go through them, and then we’ll move on to other pastures. (You can easily find these first lines by Googling “famous first lines.”)

“Call me Ishmael.” Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, 1851

“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 Prejudice, 1813

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, 1877; trans. Constance Garnett

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.” Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1885

And they go on, the stunning first lines of so many great books. Look up the others. They include Kafka, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Camus, Vladimir Nabokov, Gabriel García Márquez, George Orwell, Ralph Ellison, and many others. If “many others” can write an excellent first line, so can you.

Sometimes a first line will simply drift into a writer’s mind, rather like a harmless ghost. I say “harmless,” but that line may make you a bit obsessive as you think about where it might lead, whether you wish to go there or not, and its rhythm. Always think about the rhythm. Stately? Surprising? Quietly sane or quietly crazy? Is it a gentle sentence, something like a pillow? Is it a sentence hardened with nouns? Does it explode? Is it like a late Beethoven quartet? Is it ditsy and funny and apparently harmless? Maybe you want a sentence that jingles. Maybe you want a lamenting sentence. There are all kinds of sentences, and it’s up to you to choose one. Just be sure to choose a good one. And very likely, given the pace of change in our (for the nonce) modern world, you want a sentence that carries the reader straight into the story. Don’t dawdle.

Of the great opening lines above, the greatest, I think, and certainly the most efficient, is Melville. It takes him only three words to pull us into a relationship with the book.

A relationship with a book is what every reader wants to find when he or she turns to the first page. The writer may foreground the character or characters, style, place, plot, or any other element in the book, but the reader wants to love the whole book, to be so deeply involved in it that texting and cellphones don’t, at least while the reader is reading, interfere with his or her relationship with the book. It is not always possible to cement this relationship in a single sentence, but try. Maybe you’ll have to write a second sentence, or a third or a fourth. Even in an age when time flies faster than missiles or email, you can take up to a paragraph for your opening. Here is the mysterious, romantic opening of Garcia Márques’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. It is a single line, but the passage moves more slowly than most opening lines:

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

Does “ice” surprise the reader? It surprised me, but perhaps readers who live in warm climates would not be surprised; they may be already aware of the value of ice. In any case, the line flows languidly in front of us and we follow it because we know that something unusual, something magical, is leading us.

So the days of fulsome beginnings may have left us, but you do have time to bore in on the plot or introduce a character or set the mood. Just pick your words carefully and — to repeat — don’t dawdle.

War and Peace and A Tale of Two Cities state their themes at the beginning. Such an opening lets us know that grand subjects are going to unfold and some history will probably be explored. The witty beginning of Pride and Prejudice advises us to stay awake if we want to glean all we can from Jane Austen’s novel; she has put us on alert.

“This is the saddest story I ever heard,” is how Ford Madox Ford begins The Good Soldier. Said so plainly, we accept the sentence at face value, and we feel anxiety and even dread but cannot resist reading on. And how about the first line of The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane?

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.

So quiet. And so chilling. And the reader is already afraid to breathe!

Go ahead, write some one-line openings. You may come up with one that seems to want to move on to a second sentence. That is how stories and novels are written. It is easier than writing metrical poetry and it is fun, because a third line will come to you and then a fourth. At that point you will discover yourself launched on a project you may never have dreamed of. Writing is funny that way; it leaps into new territory and now, instead of pressing ahead, you find that you are following — following the sentences, following your subconsciousness, following the words that your fingers seem to write before you have thought of writing them. The Greeks thought we had muses. What we actually have is receptivity. The thing you wish to create will come to you if you let it.

All the same, it’s not unusual to discover that what you have written did not need to be written. In that case, cut out anything unnecessary. Even if it means cutting several chapters. Writing is a tricky business. Well, it’s no longer a business at all, given ebooks and small presses, but the author’s responsibility to the book (the poem, the story, the novel, the memoir, the whatever-you-write) remains as keen as ever. It is not the book that bears responsibility; it is the author. The author owes everything to the book and must write with that fact in mind. •

Feature image courtesy of Tom Simpson via Flickr (Creative Commons).