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New Beginnings ~ Opening Lines

By Kathryn Pritchett
September 1, 2020

September is a time of new beginnings. For those of us raised in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s when we traditionally go back to school. Even more so in this strange year of sheltering, the arrival of September has me wanting to Learn New Things.

One silver lining in COVID times is the wealth of courses and lectures available online. An open calendar and the proliferation of Zoom presentations has allowed me to learn how to draw birds, develop photography skills, perfect yoga poses and pursue writing goals in the company of fellow writers. All from the comfort of my California home. 

Recently, I took a workshop from novelist Myla Goldberg (Bee Season) about opening lines. Each attendee (there were about 35 of us in the workshop sponsored by NYC’s Paragraph) had been told to come with a first line we admired. When we signed in, we were asked to share that line in the Zoom chat. 

I recognized opening lines from classic authors Charles Dickens and John Steinbeck, alongside some from contemporary authors like John Irving and Louise Erdrich. Most were unfamiliar to me, but all were compelling in different ways.  

Using our submitted lines as examples, Goldberg shared elements that make first lines successful. These included suspense, humor, action, sensory details, beautiful writing, voice, concrete details, conflict, powerful names and something she calls The Inspector General—a command that you, the reader, become involved in the story. 

The example she used for that last element was the opening line from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: “See the child.” McCarthy insists that you, the reader, pay attention.

I contributed the first line from a historical novel I’d recently read—The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. The novel tells the story of a 17th century Norwegian girl forced through an arranged marriage to live in a remote northern village where witch trials are frequently convened. It’s a terrific tale well told, and it begins with this line: “The storm comes in like a finger snap.”

The line feels like one of those clapperboards they use to start filming a scene. Ready, set, action. It implies conflict (a storm) and includes sensory details (the feel and sound of a finger snap.) A simple but powerful start.

The first line from my current read is another short, simple line. This time the protagonist introduces herself with the words: “I am Ana.” So begins Sue Monk Kidd’s The Book of Longings. Ana, we find out in the next line, was the wife of Jesus ben Joseph—yes, that Jesus—and the simple beginning reads like an incantation. Soon Ana will write a longer incantation that will prove both prophecy and curse.

Scanning Goldberg’s list, I would apply “The Inspector General” as well as “powerful names” to Kidd’s opening line. Ana doesn’t sidle up to the reader. Instead, she stands in front of you and speaks her name. The stark spelling A-N-A conveys her forthright manner.

One more. My WIP references the work of the playwright J.M. Barrie. So, this September I’m on a self-assigned reading course of many of Barrie’s plays, including Peter Pan. The 1904 script opens with young Alex Darling in the nursery telling his dog Nana “I won’t go to bed, I won’t, I won’t.” The line not only shows the boy’s resistance to bedtime, but also signals Peter Pan’s unwillingness to grow up. This idea is shared more directly in Barrie’s follow-up novel Peter and Wendy  (1911) which begins “All children, except one, grow up.”

That opening line gives us what Goldberg calls her “go-to” strategy for successful first lines—suspense. There is a child who doesn’t grow up? Who is he or she? Why won’t they grow up? Is there tragedy ahead? Magic afoot? Yes, that and much more. Even though I already know the story of Peter Pan, Barrie’s opening line makes me want to read more.

With September upon us, what new beginnings await you and your work?

Kathryn Pritchett
Written by Kathryn Pritchett

Kathryn Pritchett writes about strong women forged in the American West. To interact with her and the other Paper Lantern Writers, join us in our Facebook group SHINE, on Instagram, and Twitter.

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