Friday, February 15, 2013

Opening Arguments, Opening Lines

By Maggie

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?


Patricia Stoltey said...

Hi Maggie -- I love to search through the books in my bookcases to find killer first sentences for a blog post.

I haven't had much experience sitting through the first part of a courtroom case though. I'm usually rejected as a juror after the first round of questioning.

Dean K Miller said...

A good question. If I picked up a book and the opening line was:

"This story sucks." I think I might read more to find out why, or who is telling. If the following content is good, than it's a great opening line.

Good at the start helps, but doesn't guarantee success.

Lynn said...

I TOTALLY agree with the "just start" statement. I don't know about anyone else, but my muse cowers in the corner if I put too much pressure on it. And writing the perfect first line is way too much pressure.

Part of my learning curve with the writing process is getting over the idea that because I wrote it, it must stay. Revision is the real trick, I'm discovering. And you can't revise unless you get that first draft written. Good post - thanks.

Share a Post