This time, he speaks in an interview in The Atlantic (that reads more like an essay) about a topic not covered in his On Writing memoir: Opening lines.
I hope aspiring writers read all of what he said, instead of picking their favorite sound bite.
It’s not that the first line of a book isn’t important–it is–and King discusses what a good opening line can bring to the party. On the other hand, he admits he’s not always done well with them, and stresses (waaay at the end) that an opening line won’t make or break a novel. If the story sucks, a good opener won’t save it.
The discussion prompted me to go back and look at the opening lines from my novels. How well did I do? I wondered. Let’s see.
King states that the best opening lines do two things. First, they invite the reader into the story. Second, they immediately establish the narrative “voice.” He provides examples both good and bad, but quantifying them is difficult; it’s more of a gut reaction. A good opening line is just…good; you know it instinctively. You can try to get all mathematical about it, but that’s an endeavor King likens to “trying to catch moonbeams in a jar.” And, I’d say, it’s about as important.
But opening lines shouldn’t be ignored. With his examples, I see what he means. I can recognize a good one, and perhaps distinguish a better example from a poorer one. I may not be able to tell you why this one’s good and that one’s bad, though.
When I was writing short stories, opening lines were always an important consideration. An opening line was crucial to getting an editor’s attention. I’ll admit, though, when I moved to novels I paid less attention. Mistake. As a result, I’ve written some clunkers, in both self- and professionally published novels. I’ve had some good ones, too, but with few exceptions, this has been more by luck than by design.
My worst opening line is definitely from Unraveling Time. Much as I love that book–the characters, the structure, the disparate settings–the first line just reeks to heaven’s gate. It’s clunky, pompous, and neither invites the reader nor establishes the voice I use in the rest of the book. Why did it get through, as badly constructed as it is? Because I wasn’t paying attention to that particular detail. The opening chapter for Unraveling Time didn’t start as the opening chapter. Things got rearranged in editing. and I was so happy with the new arrangement that I didn’t go back and re-read the new opening. The fact that it also passed by beta-readers and editors doesn’t limit my chagrin. It’s my book, and I loathe that opening line.
My best, I’d have to say, is from Dreams of the Desert Wind. It has the best combination of intrigue and voice, and immediately sets the mood. Dreams was actually the first novel I wrote (originally titled Khamsin), and thus my habits from short story writing probably hung on. The strength of the opening line were still second nature to me, then.
Overall, the Fallen Cloud Saga and the Ploughman Chronicles have good opening lines. The FC books got better as I improved my craft, but both the PC books, written years before, are on the upper edge of the curve. Again, this is probably because I hadn’t yet forgotten the lessons I learned in the short-story phase of my writing career.
King makes an interesting observation when he says that the opening line is not only a way in for the reader, it’s also the author’s way in. Obviously, King writes his books in a linear fashion, and that first sentence is critical to his establishing the voice and interest for himself, as well. This is akin to how I use working titles–like The Wolf Tree. A working title has always been my way into the novel, but I think I’ll take a page from King’s script and pay more attention to opening lines as well.
If you’re interested, I’ve provided all my opening lines below. Feel free to form your own opinion.
Is your opinion different from mine? Leave a comment and tell me how, and why…
Outside the lodge, the crier’s strong, clear words carried through the chill evening air.
The sweat on the back of George’s neck went cold, the ache from the stub of his amputated finger swept aside as he stared at the lump of raw metal in his bandaged hand.
George walked through the dappled sunshine of late afternoon and felt no pain.
The storm doused the world.
Speaks While Leaving stood before the Council chiefs and waited for their stunned silence to break.
Face down on the cold granite boulder, Alain sought the power of the ley line.
The raven landed on the window sill, onyx feet scratching the cold stone.
It was hotter than Hamish thought it could get anywhere beyond a volcanic caldera.
David floated through the dreamworld.