Mentor Text Wednesday: The First Line

Mentor Texts:

Collections of great first lines from literature from Gawker , The American Book Review, A YA list from The Huffington Post, funny ones via ShortList, and can one list lists with out including a BuzzFeed list these days?

Writing Techniques

  • Writing Exposition
  • Establishing Tone
  • Reflecting Upon Writing

Background

first-lines-of-famous-books-infographic

Another list, in gorgeous infographic form via infogrades.com

My Grade 11 class and I just finished reading Fahrenheit 451, which begins, simply, “It was a pleasure to burn.”

Outside of work, I read the second Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett, The Light Fantastic. It begins, “The sun rose slowly, as if it wasn’t sure it was worth all the effort.”

Both of these books begin with amazing first lines. They set the tone for the novel to follow, and, once we get into that book, reveal themselves to be quite deep.

I knew there was something here that I want to present to writers. We need to have a rich dialogue, and study of the first line. Whenever we study Fahrenheit as a class, I refer constantly to that opening line to demonstrate the change in Montag’s character. In 6 words, Bradbury establishes the core of Montag’s character as the novel begins. Pratchett begins his novel wryly, giving us an indication of the sardonic wit that follows.

As I pulled lists of first lines from websites, I scanned through them. Some I remembered fondly from my own reading, which speaks to their impact. Some, I realized, were insanely good at capturing the spirit of the entire text in but a sentence. Others, I put in a separate mental file for their value as creative writing prompts.

See, the first line of a novel is important, not only as a hook for the reader, but because it has such depth and possibility for the writer, and we should explore that with our writers.

How We Might Use These Texts:

Writing Exposition – I’m a superhero fan, how many movies do I need to sit through that are origin stories with some extra story tacked on? How often do we collect creative pieces that are bogged down by exposition? Often, our writers tread carefully, giving us reams of exposition to make sure that we can understand the narrative that follows. Though their story may take some risks creatively, too often they get lost in setting things up for the reader.

This is where the first line comes in. Bradbury’s genius line at the beginning of Fahrenheit works so well because he gives us the core of Montag’s character, and mere pages later, begins to tear it down completely. This is the crux of the novel, and it is established using the first line.

I foresee us looking at and discussing some of the great first lines from these lists, especially those from texts that we’ve read. I’d like to steer them towards the fact that many, like Bradbury’s, give a large piece of exposition quickly, and then move into the story, adding more exposition where relevant.

As I reflect on this, I’ll point out that this is the only issue I have with the near perfect, in my opinion, To Kill A Mockingbird. Harper Lee gives us a first chapter that is dense with exposition, establishing our setting and the character of Maycomb. However, it is a challenging read. Somewhere inside me lives a revisionist, who would like to see a great first line replace that first chapter, and have all that other exposition dispersed throughout the novel.

With my writers, I would have them take a piece, and write the exposition that they think a reader would need at the outset of the story in a sentence, as briefly as they can. Perhaps the 6 Word Memoir could serve as a model for this. Then, we’d see how the pieces read with that sentence at the beginning.

Establishing Tone – Tone is hard for our writers, but is an essential thing for them to work on. Like the Pratchett quote above, the first line goes a long way to establish the tone of the piece that follows.

Again, I’d take my writers back to the list. Look at the first lines from texts we know. The first line from Catcher in the Rye is saturated with Holden’s voice, and sets the tone for the novel that follows. This is key for our writers to understand, and emulate in their own work.

An interesting exercise might be to take a list of first lines, and look at the first lines of books that we aren’t familiar with. If we discussed the tone established by the line, and then did some research on the book, to see if our reading of the tone connected with what the novel actually does, or how others, like reviewers, read it. If there are discrepancies, why would that be? (Consider the inclusion of the first line of Charlotte’s Web included in the list of funny opening lines. That can be read so many ways.)

This is also a great launching pad into a greater discussion of tone in our own writing. When we draft an opening line for our piece, we need to consider the tone of the piece, and the importance of starting our piece by establishing as best we can. Remembering that tone can be read as “how the author feels” about the characters or subject of the piece, we could work to bring that across in our opening line.

Reflecting Upon Writing – I should likely have done some research here, but my guess, when it comes to opening lines, is that they fall into two camps. The first is the type where that first line existed as an entity itself, and the story followed. The other is that the story was written, and the first line was added in a revision.

As much as I love the romantic nature of first type, that kind of lightning in a bottle isn’t quite something we can teach, so on to the second type.

The idea of the power of the first line gives us something concrete to work on in a revision pass – exposition and tone being established at the beginning of the piece. Our writers would read their piece, looking to see if they’ve written too much exposition, if it could be expressed more succinctly at the beginning. They would critically assess the tone of their piece, and experiment with whether or not they could use a strong opening line to establish that tone.

As readers, we’re well aware of the importance of the first line, the hook that pulls a reader into the piece. Though it may seem obvious to us, it’s an important thing to consider with our writers. The beauty of a series of first lines as mentor text is the depth of models we have to study.

What else can we learn as writers by studying opening lines? What opening lines resonate with you?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!

-Jay

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