Friday, February 15, 2013
Opening Arguments, Opening Lines
Recently my husband received his first summons to jury duty. No matter how many times he called and checked the court’s recorded message, his number was still included in those required to appear. This past Monday morning, with a good book in hand, he went to sit through the selection process assuming that would be the extent of his civic duty obligation. Much to his surprise, he was chosen and became a juror. As when I served several years ago, his experience proved to be an eye-opening one. One of the most striking aspects of the court proceedings for each of us was just how crucial the choice and timing of the first spoken words truly is to the outcome. I see the same thing in writing an engaging novel.
The opening arguments/statements from either side in a trial must lock in the cerebral and emotional involvement of the jurors, making them care, pay attention, wanting to know more. The reader, just like the juror, must be grabbed from the first words. Writers have all heard this.
In a Writer’s Digest article from September 7, 2012, “How to Write a Great Opening Line,” Chuck Sambuchino and his guest columnist, author Merry Jones (Harper Jennings thrillers), presented thoughts for us to deliberate. This article reminds us the grab at the beginning “doesn’t have to involve a chokehold. But it does have to make readers want to find out more. To engage them. Build curiosity. Create intrigue and draw them in.”
Merry Jones gives us examples of famous opening lines:
“Last night I dreamt I was in Manderley again.” Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
“They’re out there.” One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” by Ken Kesey
“It was a slow Sunday afternoon, the kind Walden loved.” The Man from St. Petersburg, by Ken Follett
While Jones agrees these lines are good at setting tone and giving information, she ponders on how ordinary they sound when one doesn’t think of the novels they came from. Her point is that many writers often slave over writing the ultimate opening line when what’s really important is “all the sentences that follow it.” Merry Jones encourages us to go with advice she received from her third grade teacher, Mrs. Kellen: “The best way to start is to start.” And Jones says, “So that’s what I do. No perfect first sentence involved. No need for fancy phrasing or affected action. I just start.”
My inner jury is still out on this one. How about yours?