Art of the Opening: First Line Versus Last Line
Welcome to our occasional column exploring the art of openings!
First impressions matter. The opening lines, paragraphs, and pages of a story or novel must not only hook the reader, they must ground us in the world of the story, in place, in time, in character. Landing an effective opening is no easy feat. At CRAFT we focus on writing craft in the prose we publish. With this column, we’re exploring the art of the opening in an interactive way, re-reading the masters, discussing openings with their writers, peeking behind the scenes at the revision process, essaying about what we find striking. With any luck, no two pieces will look exactly the same.
This column is led by associate editor Suzanne Grove and short fiction section editor Albert Liau, working together on behalf of CRAFT. With this essay, Liau revisits the beloved 10-Minute Writer’s Workshop for a look at openings versus endings. —CRAFT
“Which is harder: the first sentence or the last?”
Several years have passed since the 10-Minute Writer’s Workshop ended, but this podcast series still feels fresh, thanks to its punchy format of lightning-round Q&A with authors that briefly yet meaningfully pulled back the curtain on the writing process. Series host Virginia Prescott always brought a bright curiosity to these mini-interviews through her repertoire of questions that included, “What’s your biggest distraction?” “Do you revise as you go?” and “Which is harder, the first sentence or the last?” As the series went on, that question about beginnings and endings would pique my attention, signaling that we may be in for a treat: the pitting of story beginnings against endings in the author’s mind. The responses were fascinating and soon got me wondering if there was a consensus or any patterns—an intellectual itch that had to be scratched with data collection and number crunching. Here’s what I ended up with:
There we have it. Out of sixty episodes, thirty-six authors responded directly to the question, with the majority telling us that the first sentence is harder than the last.
Are the results this clear cut, though? Taking a closer look, we find some ambiguity in the raw data—that is, in the authors’ responses. Some authors explicitly differentiate between the first line that begins a draft as opposed to the first line of the final form of the story. Salman Rushdie mentions in episode 1, “The first sentence quite often changes.” A perspective echoed in episode 13 by Alexander Chee’s comment, “What turned out to be part of the writing was finding the first sentence for the novel. The first sentences that you write aren’t necessarily the first sentences of the novel.” On the other hand, Tom Perrotta (episode 8) says he has never changed the beginning of a book once he has it. But often, we are left guessing at whether an author is referring to the first sentences that they write or the first sentences that open the final version of their book—or if they are one and the same. Though I sometimes wish the question had been more clearly posed, there’s a flexibility that Prescott’s phrasing affords. The upshot is we get to hear where authors go with their interpretation of the question based on their experiences with creative projects. An impromptu estimate of how much challenge is posed by the beginning of the story. Or even a discussion of drafting and revision, as is the case with Richard Russo (episode 19), who ends up using the question as a point of departure for a whirlwind tour of how he starts shaping a novel, culminating with: “I don’t think I have written a book yet where the first sentence that I wrote or what I thought was the beginning of the book turned out to be the actual beginning.” Despite the variation and ambiguity in these responses, we can at least conclude from the data that many authors feel that writing the beginning of a story—whether for themselves or the reader—is difficult.
So, what is it about the beginning that makes it so challenging? After all, one of renowned designer Bruce Mau’s principles is “Begin anywhere.” And yes, a story can begin just about anywhere and with anything, as we discussed in our last installment; there’s so much an opening can do. But as we also considered, an author usually opts for an opening that achieves an effect—typically one that begins to situate and/or draw in the reader—through the use of craft elements. As Michael Cunningham says in episode 41 of 10-Minute Writer’s Workshop, in the beginning of the story “you’re finding the voice, the tone, the point of view.” Certainly these can be discovered later, but the sooner the author can establish them, the sooner the author begins solidifying the kind of story they are telling. Cynthia Ozick (episode 27) gives us a perspective that resonates with Cunningham’s when she tells us, “The first sentence is the key to everything, and the last sentence is a gift from the gods.” It’s that unlocking of the door into the story, the one that lets us—whether we are author or reader—in through an entry point that begins to reveal, to revisit Alexander Chee’s idea of “that sense of the world, the character in it and the relationship between the character and the world.”
Both the author and audience are engaged in the discovery of a fictional world and its main character, discovery that starts with—or is at least aided by—a first sentence. This seems to be what Jodi Picoult (episode 30) is getting at when she says, “I’m not allowed to let myself write until I can feel that first sentence in my head.” Picoult goes on to tell Prescott, “I always know the beginning of the book, and I know the end of the book. How I get from A to Z though is up to the characters… I just know where I’m starting and where I’m headed.” As Stephen Koch remarks in The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, “Stories make themselves known, they reveal themselves—even to their tellers—only by being told.” For many authors, the first sentence may be so challenging because it must do the crucial work of launching their telling, the path to their own revelation. For Megan Abbott (episode 7 of 10-Minute Writer’s Workshop), the first sentence is a matter of “really believing that this is the book, this is the story I should be telling.”
Even with a promising start, an author often takes a circuitous route through numerous drafts. Which is perhaps why Olivia Liang (episode 15), Ben H. Winters (episode 41), and Anita Shreeve (episode 44) vote for the middle sentences as being the hardest, and why Jonathan Safran Foer (episode 47) says, “They’re all hard.” It’s tough work pioneering and presenting a path of discovery for the reader. Whether it’s the same way or a different way, the author and reader each need an effective way into discovery. Exactly as Salman Rushdie said in episode 1: “The first sentence is harder because…the first sentence is what sets the whole book going.” How fitting, as Prescott and Rushdie got this podcast series going with a crackerjack start, launching listeners into fifty-nine more episodes of how authors do their work.
Openings for You
- Which tends to be harder for you, the first sentence or the last? Why do you think that is? What might you be trying to discover or set up in your first sentences?
- Consider the current opening to a story you’re working on or thinking about starting. Is that opening a way into the story for you or your reader or both? If you have an opening that allowed you to enter the world of the story, how might you change it to allow the reader to enter the world of a story in a manner that situates and/or intrigues them?
Ever eager to find fascinating, fanciful fiction, ALBERT LIAU is an editor at Montag Press, a niche/nano publisher based in the San Francisco Bay Area with an expanding, eclectic catalogue spanning a range of literary and genre fiction.