Hallie Ephron asked whether anyone wanted to read his or her first paragraph. Lynne, brave woman, did and was rewarded by Hallie’s strong, positive reaction. My hand stayed in my lap. I stared at the first line of my recently completed draft; I could not bring myself to read it aloud. Bad sign. I changed it before handing it to the Writers’ Group.
With all the talk of first lines, I wondered, how do great books start? Can you tell right away that This One is going to be Different, because of what it reveals? I pulled a couple dozen off my shelf at random, ignoring covers as much as possible. You can play along. Rank the following first lines; think about whether you would keep reading, why, what you would say if you read this from typed stationery rather than in hardcover.
1. Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.
2. Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.
3. The house was built on the highest part of the narrow tongue of land between the harbor and the open sea.
4. The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a fluttering of the sails, and was at rest.
5. I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before.
6. The boy with the fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon.
All are nice sentences, of course. In reading only first lines, I picked the first two as “best” for their lyricism. The next two give only setting, the fifth offering a touch more with point of view. The last is direct in its narrative; if you recognize it, know its title, you might get a chill:
1. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
2. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
3. Islands in the Stream, Ernest Hemingway
4. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
5. A Separate Peace, John Knowles
6. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
I am off to the bookshelf to uncover more first lines, maybe more of those that deserve attention for what hides behind them rather than what they reveal. What else will I find?
Wednesday, April 04, 2007