Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Heller’

On opening lines

In this post, I consider what makes for good opening lines.

That wasn’t really very good, was it? Not only does that opening line not impart much beyond what the title has already said, it establishes a tone of voice that is unlikely to engage the casual reader. Or even, for that matter, an interested one. It presents a picture of an author who is scrupulous and correct, but also bland and boring; and who – as Wilde said most unfairly about Henry James – sees writing as a “painful duty”. Perhaps it might work better if expressed as a rhetorical question:

What makes for a good opening line?

A bit better, perhaps: it opens the prospect of a discussion that could lead to some sort of answer. But it’s not much better than the first attempt, to be honest. Many of my earlier posts in this blog started in this manner, but once I made the effort to read through some of my older posts in a critical frame of mind – a salutary though frequently dispiriting thing to do – I realised quite soon how irritating a mannerism this is. I take care never to start any post like this nowadays.

For openings are difficult, and also important, especially in our attention-straitened times. If you haven’t captured the reader’s attention within the first few lines – sometimes within the very first line – then the prospective reader has gone: that extra “view” on your blog statistics does not translate to someone who has bothered to read what you’ve written.

This obviously puts at a disadvantage writers such as myself whose natural style tends towards the prolix rather than the snappy. But snappy opening lines are not without their problems either. All too often, they seem designed to capture the reader’s attention: it’s sometimes a sort of metaphorical throat-clearing – a call to attention which, once delivered, clears the way for the piece really to begin with the second sentence. This is not necessarily a shortcoming: one can sometimes find this sort of thing even in very fine works. Take, for instance, the opening of Joseph Heller’s brilliant Catch 22:

It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

Instantly, the reader (well this reader at any rate) is hooked. But the paragraph that follows has nothing to do with the chaplain: it tells us that Yossarian was in hospital, and explains why. The writing is still brilliant, the reader is still hooked, but that first sentence does not lead to what immediately follows: there is a disjoin.

Of course, that isn’t a problem here – especially as this novel delights in comic artifice, and constantly, and quite deliberately, draws attention to itself. But if that opening line were to be omitted, there would be no hole in the narrative. Writers lesser than Joseph Heller (which is just about all of us, I guess) would, I think, be well-advised to be careful about using this sort of throat-clearing opening gambit. I try not to use it myself: I know my limits, and, badly done, it could become as irritating a mannerism as starting posts with rhetorical questions.

Of course, opening lines don’t have to be snappy to capture the reader’s attention: take for instance the famous openings sentence of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

Sixty-three words, by my count, which could easily be cut down dramatically while still retaining its sense; but, as written, it captures the reader’s attention because it establishes a very distinctive tone of voice: the “David Copperfield kind of crap” is a particularly felicitous touch. The model for this sort of thing is, I suppose, the opening of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn:

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.

Once again, it captures a very distinctive tone of voice. The “don’t” rather than the grammatically correct “won’t” helps capture the tone, but the real touch of brilliance here is, I think, the word “without”. Most of us would have written something along the lines of “You won’t know about me unless you have…”; or “You won’t know about me if you haven’t…”; but anything along those lines would have disrupted the distinctive rhythm of Huck’s manner of speaking. I don’t know how much time and thought Twain had given to that opening sentence, but I suspect it was the product of hard work rather than a spontaneous effusion. And how he must have rejoiced when he finally came up with “without”, and realised that the opening sentence was now absolutely perfect.

But one can also create arresting openings without being snappy, and without establishing an engaging and distinctive narrative voice: but such openings arrest the attention only of a certain kind of reader. Here, for instance, is the opening sentence of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove:

She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass above the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.

Of course, this is unlikely to attract readers who are not prepared to take their time and to engage closely, but James is not writing for such readers anyway. Here, all in one sentence, we are given a sense of the passage of time (Kate Croy is waiting “unconscionably”); the detail of the glass above the mantel gives us a sense of place; the irritation that brings Kate Croy to the point of leaving without seeing her father conveys a sense of her character, and also a sense of tension for reasons as yet unspecified; the face “postively pale” implies a sense of crisis either impending or apparent; and even the four opening words (“She waited, Kate Croy, …” rather than “Kate Croy waited …”) places the emphasis on the act of waiting rather than on the more mundane matter of the naming of the character; while the two commas punctuating these first four words make for a halting, stuttering rhythm that conveys admirably a sense of strain and of unease. All this in a single, harmoniously constructed sentence. Admittedly, this is unlikely to make the Flavorwire or Buzzfeed (or whatever) list of great opening lines, but if ever there were a finer opening to a novel than this, I don’t know it.

And only yesterday, on starting for the first time the essays of Francis Bacon, I came upon this opening line:

“What is truth?” said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.

The essay is entitled “On Truth”. In the gospels, Pilate does indeed ask the captured Jesus this most profound of questions, “What is truth?” (John 18:38); we do not know if Jesus had answered, for no answer is recorded. In Bacon’s version of this story, Pilate did not stay for an answer – either because he did not think there was an answer, or because he did not wish to hear what he thought (or feared) the answer may be. And Pilate, according to Bacon, was “jesting”. Not that he asked the question “in jest”, but that his entire person may be described as “jesting”; that he either refused, or pretended to refuse, to take life too seriously. The two possibilities put forward in this brief sentence are intriguing: either Pilate did not take life seriously, and had asked “What is truth?” fully convinced that no answer was possible; or that he pretended, for reasons we may only guess at, not to take life too seriously, and did not wish even to hear any possible answer to his question.

What wondrous vistas of thought, rich in possibilities, are brought to view by this seemingly simple opening line! It draws me into this meditation on the nature of truth as surely as if it were a thrilling adventure story. Now, that’s how to start an essay, and, to judge by the generally mundane opening lines of my posts here on my blog – the critical reading of which remains, as I said, a frequently dispiriting thing to do – I clearly have some considerable distance yet to go…

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