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You Only Make a First Impression Once

Ford Madox Ford

I want to do something crazy different this week. I want to talk about writing. I want to focus on a different aspect of writing every day. Tonight, I want to talk about first lines. Openers. Your first move. Is it confident, timid, arresting, digressive? Is is mysterious, challenging, indulgent, or tricky? Are you introducing a person, place or thing? Is our narrator instantly known, or shadowy. What’s the tense? Who’s speaking? Is there a hook? Is the language surprising, does it foretell the end? Here are some first lines.

From Crying of Lot 49:

Thomas Pynchon

One summer afternoon Mrs Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.

D.H. Lawrence

From Lady Chatterley’s Lover:

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically,

From The Good Soldier:

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

Which opening line would you vote for and why? For me, it’s the Ford. I love the first person. I love how direct and simple it seems, while at the same time I feel a story of great complexity coming on. I like the use of present tense; it makes the sentence very immediate, though the next sentence will shift easily into past. Also, I live for sad stories. My uncle once asked me why I didn’t like happy stories and I said because I didn’t believe they were true. It’s not a world view for everyone, but it’s mine.

23 Responses

  1. I love sad stories, too. Sad stories unsettle me and make me want to cry. To me sadness is easily as good an emotion as happiness, sometimes even more so.

  2. I love the first person/present tense, too. And I love stories about people with empty cupboards and empty souls.

    Great opening line: “They say my mama, Miss Essie Mae Loggins, was the wildest girl in Marengo County, Alabama.” –Joe David Brown’s PAPER MOON

  3. I vote for the Pynchon. Because it is playful and because I love America as only an immigrant can.

  4. Funny as it sounds, I would say the jury is rigged here. In the era of ‘word counts’ I would say you should ask us to judge the first 50-100 words, not just where the first period happens to be.
    The Ford piece obviously sets up an entire story with it’s narrative. It also sets up the silliness you are probably going to find later by the choice of names.
    The other two set a mood, but no narrative cohesiveness comes from those first sentences. But if we read the exact same amount of words that Ford wrote, then what would we find?

  5. “When the guy with asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away.”

    I don’t like sad stories; I can generate sadness myself. I like hypermasculine stories of gratuitous violence and meaningless sex. For obvious reasons.

  6. The Ford, simple and basic as can be, plunges me right in.
    One of my favorite openers is from “Scaramouche” by Rafael Sabatini:
    “He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”

  7. Definitely The Good Soldier. I think first lines are most effective when they resonate with voice and a sense of anticipation or foreboding.

    As far as the ending: A book can throw heartache and anguish at me for pages. And I don’t need a happily-ever-after ending. I agree; it seldom rings true.

    But give me an ending with hope.

  8. “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” That’s the one for me. I’m hooked.

  9. as a short story writer, i want to hear the name of the main character in the first paragraph. so, Ford does that in the first example.

    i prefer an emotive story to one so full of literary devices that my thinking brain takes over (on the first read).

    • okay, i’m visually messed up. Pynchon is my final answer. i had to call out to an educated person, being a rube and all.

  10. I like Ford’s line but it’s too easy. Lawrence’s says not only is there a sad story coming up, the narrator is intelligent and perceptive.

    My favorite opener: “We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.” (Louise Erdrich, TRACKS)

    She’s saying basically the same thing as Ford but what a difference in the visual.

  11. I like them all, but I love the Ford. Give the reader a way in immediately. No better way, as every visual artist knows, than the negative space of deep emotion. Invites imagination.

    When people say of art they avoid, “It’s depressing”, I say, “No, it’s serious. Ignore it at your own peril.”

  12. Ford’s line is the most seductive. You’re thinking, no shit, the saddest ever, try me…

    My favorite first line is from Denis Johnson’s novel Angels: “In the Oakland Greyhound all the people were dwarfs, and they pushed and shoved to get on the bus, even cutting ahead of the two nuns, who were there first.”

  13. I like Lawrence’s line. I like the use of “ours” which makes me feel part of the story. It also seems to promise some fun. It shows me that the character is will be interesting to follow.

  14. I like first lines that are unassuming but a little sly — that are confident enough to be almost dull:

    “This morning I got a note from my aunt asking me to come for lunch.” — Walker Percy’s THE MOVIEGOER.

    “Keller flew United to Portland.” Block’s HIT MAN.

    “Mr. and Mrs. Otto Bentwood drew out their chairs simultaneously.” Paula Fox’s DESPERATE CHARACTERS.

    “My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood.” Shirley Jackson’s WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE.

    “The station wagons arrived at noon, a long shining line that coursed through the west campus.” DeLillo’s WHITE NOISE.

    Also, lines with a little mystery embedded in them:

    “I planned my death carefully; unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my feeble attempts to control it.” Atwood’s LADY ORACLE. (weird use of semicolon, though, huh?)

    “On a cold and blowy February day a woman is boarding the 10 am flight to London, followed by an invisible dog.” Lurie’s FOREIGN AFFAIRS.

  15. 1st example; Makes my head explode. I hate writing like that.
    2nd example; Ok.
    3rd example: Much better for me.

  16. Here’s one of my favorites.

    From Gary Benchley, Rock Star
    by Paul Ford

    “Before I moved to New York from Albany, I wrote out a careful, step-by-step plan:
    1) Rock out.
    2) No more data entry.”

  17. […] You Only Make a First Impression Once « Betsy Lerner […]

  18. Hi

    I love your book and LOVE your blog! I am such a believer in first lines that when I teach my class in the UCLA Writer’s Program I sometimes spend an entire class on this!

    Stop by and visit my blog. I muse about the writing world.


  19. I love when the first line epitomizes the work’s overall tone and (hopefully) its irony. Like you read it and know exactly what kind of book it will be.

  20. […] You Only Make a First Impression Once « Betsy Lerner […]

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