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YMMV: Stop Workshopping Your Opening Sentences

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, called me Ishmael at the worst of times...

Stop Workshopping Your Opening Sentences

"Call me Ishmael" is arguably the most famous opening line in English-language literature. But does it really deserve that accolade? I mean... if I were a true iconoclast, I'd be putting together an argument that it sucks, actually. But this ain't that kind of post, and just because something is famous, that doesn't mean it's secretly awful. So instead, I'm coming down on the side of: It's fine. Maybe even "pretty good," as these things go. It's functional. It's interesting. It's succinct and memorable. It establishes the narrator and sets tone. As opening lines go, it does what it needs to do. But do you know what it doesn't do?

It doesn't sell books. Not one. No one ever thumbed through the volumes at their local Barnes & Noble under "M," saw Moby Dick there, cracked it open to page one and thought "Oh shit, this is an Ishmael story!? Damn, I'm buying this!" Literally never happened. Because that would be bonkers. You could see someone being intrigued by that opening and wanting to read a little farther. And, in fact, we can look at it through the lens of our Attention Budget model that was introduced in the last post and see just that. But the corollary is to ask "What are the odds that someone would open a book and only be willing to read a single line before making a judgment?" Feels pretty small, to me at least. If you've already put forth the effort to open the book, you're probably willing to give it at least a paragraph or two. So yes, a good opening line can convince you to keep reading... but you were already going to keep reading. The opening line by itself has not sold you on the book. It's sold you on a few more paragraphs.

And yet, we as a book-reading culture have thoroughly internalized the mythology of "Call me Ishmael"--that this famous opening line is the reason Moby Dick was popular and is considered a classic. But this is just factually wrong. For starters, Moby Dick was a flop in Herman Melville's lifetime. And arguably it's only a classic now because school curricula are built around books that you can easily and cheaply purchase 100+ copies of for the classroom, but that's a rant for another post. The honest truth is that we have the causality backwards. "Call me Ishmael" is famous because lots of people have read Moby Dick, not the other way around.

And we all intuitively know this! Nothing I've said so far should be a surprise to you. And yet, the writing gurus will tell you that you have to hook your reader from the very first sentence. And they're wrong. They're. Just. Wrong. The honest-to-bob truth is that opening sentences aren't that important.

Now, this is not to say that I've never read one sentence of a book and put it aside. Sometimes that's all you need. But in those cases, it's not because the first line wasn't good enough, it was because the first line was actively bad, or at least actively letting me know that I was not the intended audience. And conversely, there have been books where I read the first line and knew that I was going to buy it. Andy Weir's The Martian was one. At least I remember it being one--and we're going to circle back on what I mean by that in just a moment. But in both cases, I didn't walk into that book intending to make up my mind after one sentence. It's just that the one sentence was strong enough that I could make a decision quickly.

But I have enjoyed any number of books that have extremely unimpressive opening lines. The opening line of A Game of Thrones is throwaway dialog between two characters who will not survive the prologue, but I loved that book. The first line of Stephen King's It is exciting, but it's also very clunky. Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger is widely loved, and the opening sentence of that book--hell, the opening paragraph--is objectively boring. (Note: I don't have permission, nor am I going to seek it out, to re-publish those opening lines here, but y'all know how Kindle samples work.) I bet if you looked back at most of the books you love, you will find that many, if not most of them, don't have particularly memorable or awesome first lines. And. That's. Fine. You didn't love that book because of a single sentence.

So why do we think they matter so much?

The answer is... they're memorable. We remember them because they're the first thing that we read. Literally, that is all it takes. Primacy and recency are mental anchor points--when we look back on something we tend to have strongest recollection of how it started and how it ended, and the middle gets a bit fuzzy. This is, incidentally, why it's bad form to bury important information in the middle of a paragraph--the reader won't remember it. An opening is a first impression, and an ending is a fond farewell, and this makes them extra sticky in our brains. And because they're memorable, they also tend to absorb a lot of the vibe that surrounds them.

Let's look at the example of The Martian. The first line is good, but it's not the reason I bought the book, even though I remember it being the reason. Instead, it was a memorable line that kicked off the first paragraph--and that first paragraph is excellent. It's a master class in delivering a lot of important information in a way that is clean, concise, and engaging. I'd recommend googling it now (or... let me google that for you... here's a link.) By the end of that paragraph you know the main character's name (Mark Watney), the stakes (he's been left for dead), the location (Mars), the format (diary), the tone (tense but comical), and even the timeframe (near future, since Wikipedia is still a thing). It's a phenomenal piece of economical storytelling. That first sentence, though? That's just flavor. But that opening paragraph is so strong that you project that goodness onto the first sentence because the first sentence is the only part of it that you actually remember.

Brains are weird, yo.

The thing to recognize is that just because things are memorable, that doesn't mean that they're important. In fact, this is something that's going to come up a lot over the course of this series: the need to differentiate between what's important and what we only think is important because it's easy to remember. Plot is memorable, but theme is important. Action sequences are memorable, but stakes are important. And while an opening line is memorable, it's the opening page that's actually important. In fact, a wise man once told me that if he starts reading a short story and doesn't know the main character's stakes or conflict by the end of the third paragraph, he's unlikely to keep reading. 

Okay, so by now I've hopefully convinced you that kick-ass opening sentences aren't necessary. But the title of this post is "Stop Workshopping Your Opening Sentences," and that's maybe striking you as a little extreme. You might even point out that while I don't think the opening sentence of The Martian is the reason I actually bought and read the book, I did say it was a great sentence. Because it is. So what's the harm? A great opening sentence is a conversation piece precisely because it's memorable. Why not bring a little je ne sais quoi to your book or story? Doesn't it give it a little sex appeal? What's the harm in polishing it?

The harm is that this is a misallocation of resources. You know how if you spend all of your time and money on [insert fad alternative medicine du jour], you don't have any left for real doctors and you never actually get healthy? It's the same thing here. You have a limited amount of mental capacity to devote to editing your work. You may not think you do, but you do. And if you spend a lot of it wordsmithing stuff that doesn't actually matter, then the the whole story is going to suffer. Polish it, by all means, but don't give it any extra attention just because it's the first line. And if we're being completely honest, you should just go ahead and extend this to your whole first chapter, while you're at it.

Because you can end up with some bizarre frankensteined stories if you're not careful. My absolute favorite opening sentence of all time was from a work-in-progress that I was critiquing at a writer's conference a few years back. I won't post it here because it hasn't been published, but I'm happy to share it privately--just ask me about green bean casserole some time. It's an amazing line. The problem is, it was completely out of sync with the rest of the chapter. It felt like it waltzed in from another book and plopped down at the top of the page without asking for anyone's permission. And at that point, it ceases to be functional, because it was setting an expectation with the reader that the rest of the story wasn't meeting. And if you want to deplete your reader's attention budget, leaving them with a lingering question of "wait, what does any of this have to do with green bean casserole?" is a good way to break immersion with undue cognitive load.

There's also the little issue of diminishing returns when it comes to editing. The more you edit something, the less effective each pass becomes, and you can quickly hit a threshold where you start making things worse. We're going to dive into this in more detail next week, but if you want an example, I will direct you back to the opening line of Stephen King's It. I don't have any inside knowledge to base it on, but my instinct is that this sentence got one too many editing passes, and that's how it ended up in its exciting-but-very-clunky state.

But how good could it really be? I mean... we don't even know whether or not the narrator's name is Ishmael.

Next week, we talk about editing, and why you should do it while you're still writing...

In YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY, Kurt is outlining some of the more unusual bits of a authorial wisdom he's amassed over the years. See more posts.