Opening a column about choice opening words is a challenge.
But there, it’s done.
They are the Welcome mat. I’ll bet no words in any work of fiction are more carefully, painfully chosen by the author than those the reader first encounters. Sure, the title page, dedication, table of contents, and introduction should invite the reader in. But just watch a browser at a bookstore and you’ll know where the threshold is.
Hemingway said that when he was having trouble getting a new story going, he realized he was trying too hard, writing too elaborately, and needed to start with “one true sentence.”
Here’s how he opens The Old Man and The Sea,1952: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” His use of the word “now” propels us right into the action and the emotion.
Similarly, although a good friend recently recommended her young daughter-in-law’s first novel, I would not likely have read and thoroughly enjoyed it, unless “It was a small-town June wedding, and the bride was seventy-eight.” had not drawn me in. Neither life nor literature often celebrates the nuptials of people that age, for reasons Emily Gray Tedrowe explores so beautifully in Commuters, 2010.
I checked out a few novels I’ve read in the past year to see how welcoming they seem in retrospect, how clean and true their first words. What do you think?
“I have been here so long that even the sea gulls must recognize me. They must pass the word along about me from generation to generation, from egg to egg.”…I Cover the Waterfront, by Max Miller, 1932. I don’t know how I came by this book, but I read it three times this summer, then found an original copy online with dustcover still intact…a treasure!
“The name of the town was Beautyburg. It was one of those ironical tongue-in-cheek names which somehow get themselves attached to Pennsylvania mining towns, part mocking, part hopeful, part comic, part truthful.”…The Long Discovery, by John Burgan,1950. It hooked me, (how could anyone resist not wanting to know more about a place called Beautyburg?) and evidently not for the first time. It had been sitting on my shelf unread for years, a garage sale purchase marked “50 cents.”
“Laura was my sister, alive those four years before I was born—born not to protect her, although I made the mistake of thinking so, but to witness the show of her survival.”…A History of Silence, by Barbara Neil,1998. Laura wasn’t “four years older than I.” I stayed with this gem for the terrific writing style more than anything else.
“Devils,” Ahmad thinks. “These devils seek to take away my God.”...Terrorist, by John Updike, 2006. Delivers bone-chilling suspense; I couldn’t put it down.
“I shook his hand for the first time in 1967. I was a second-year student at Columbia then, a know-nothing boy with an appetite for books…”…Invisible, by Paul Auster, 2009. I received a copy for my birthday this year because I am a devoted fan of the author, but finished it in two days because I could relate personally to those opening words.
A friend told me recently that her favorite opening words are, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”… Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, 1938. Consider how poetic that sentence is, and how much less so it would read had the author been American and used “dreamed,” or try and substitute any other place name for the fictional “Manderley.” (Chicago definitely doesn’t work!) Consider too the power that fictional words have: In 1998, Enya, the Irish musician/singer, bought Victoria Castle, built in 1840 on the Irish coast, and renamed it “Manderley” for her favorite novel.
Of course we all have favorite books that took reading the first 100 pages to “really get into.” And even some of these begin with memorable opening words like, “Call me Ishmael.” But that’s a story for another day.