Whose Line is it Anyway?

(This show used to crack me up. I just don’t think fast enough on my feet to be able hold my own on a show like that, but it was hilarious.)

I’m not sure if the first line of a story causes me more fear and second-guessing, or the last line, but I’m leaning towards the first line. Think about it:  you’re trying to set the tone for an entire novel (or novella or short story or essay or paper…), and you want to capture your audience’s attention as well as the feel of the entire novel. In that one sentence. That’s a lot of pressure for one measly sentence, a mere handful of words.

So which tone do you take?

Iconic? “In the beginning…”

Fantastical? “Once upon a time…”

Historical? “It was the best of times…”

Character-driven? “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful…”

(True story:  I actually know the entire first half-page or so of Gone with the Wind by heart. It’s my favorite book ever, and while stylistically it’s not something I can emulate, it certainly paints a vivid picture of Scarlett right off the bat.)

I mean, if we were watching a movie, that opening shot would be—comparatively speaking—much easier to establish setting, world, character, and plot. You’ve got visuals. You could use Johnny Depp against the ocean, or bright words rolling up against a backdrop of stars. There’s an immediate feeling of place.

But what’s the literary equivalent of that opening shot?

My advice is not to worry too much over it when you’re writing your fist draft. (Are you listening, self?) If you have a brilliant idea for the perfect first line, use it. But write the entire piece or novel, and when you go back to revise, get your story in the best possible shape you can, then take a look at your first line. Chances are good that your story will have changed so much that that “perfect” first line is no longer even relevant.

But you’ll have a much better feel for the story and what you’re trying to say, and I’m betting that crafting that elusive perfect first line won’t be quite so hard with that in mind.

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