Greater Minds: Stephen King’s opening sentences

  • The first sentence turns a potential reader into a concentrating reader.
  • Stephen King’s first sentences hook the reader with tension and introduce his voice.
  • If the first sentence doesn’t do its job, later sentences won’t be read.
  • King says, ‘to get scientific about it is a little like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar’.
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Stephen King in 2007 (Pinguino / Wikimedia Commons)

“Daddy, I’m tired,” the little girl in the red pants and the green blouse said fretfully. “Can’t we stop?”

Those two sentences introduced me to Stephen King. I was in a wattle and daub hut in southern Nepal at the time, but no sooner had I opened Firestarter than King immersed me in the dark corners of America, a country I’d never set foot in.

Twenty years and a lot of rejections later, I was honoured to see one of my own stories appear alongside one of King’s in the Qualia Nous anthology. When I recovered from my elation at sharing pages with one of the world’s most successful authors, I became aware of a problem. My story, Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo, had a rather dull first sentence:

Ray Marken could have sworn the tiles surrounding the hospital room were the whitest things he had ever seen, until he saw the teeth of the rep.

It does its job. It states the protagonist’s name, where he is and who he’s interacting with. It tells the reader far more than that first sentence to Firestarter. Yet if I gave you the openings to Peppermint Tea and Firestarter and asked which made you want to read further, you would choose King’s.

You’ve been here before

I started obsessing over the first sentence somewhere between writing Peppermint Tea and posting about first sentences last year. Unsurprisingly, Stephen King has been thinking about it for a lot longer than I have and written about it in the Atlantic. He mentions a few of his favourite first lines, though Firestarter didn’t make the list. Top of his list is Needful Things:

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(Dominic Alves / CC Flickr)

You’ve been here before.

It says nothing about who the story is about or where it’s set. It hints at something familiar without really stating it. It does one thing: it gives us a reason to read the story. A far stronger reason than my attempts to jam information in before the first full stop in Peppermint Tea.

It also establishes the narrative voice in four words. King puts a lot of stock by voice:

But for me, a good opening sentence really begins with voice. You hear people talk about “voice” a lot, when I think they really just mean “style.” Voice is more than that. People come to books looking for something. But they don’t come for the story, or even for the characters. They certainly don’t come for the genre. I think readers come for the voice.

Between The Shining and a succession of low budget horror films based on his novels, Stephen King is almost synonymous with horror in the popular imagination. It’s misleading because King’s voice resonates across many genres. When I read King, I can hear him talk to me. It’s the voice of the campfire storyteller. The voice that’s been telling us tales of who did what to whom since our ancestors first sat round a campfire, and using our own unaffected language to tell them.

King describes his prose as ‘workmanlike’, but it’s more complex than that word suggests. The opening to Firestarter implies far more than it states.

Bait the hook with tension

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(Dave Roth / CC Flickr)

Those first two sentences of Firestarter are a case in point. The words tell us how a little girl is dressed and what she says. Yet to read them is to absorb far more information than that. It doesn’t say the girl and her Daddy have been on the move for some time, but it’s conveyed by what she says. The word ‘fretfully’ conveys the idea that wherever they’re going and however they’re getting there, something is happening to make her fretful. That word breaks the cardinal rule about never qualifying dialogue tags with adverbs, right in the first sentence. I can’t think of any other author who could demonstrate so clearly that there is a time to break every rule.

It’s that one word that seizes the attention, whether we notice it or not. Fretful isn’t a whiny little girl demanding to know if we’re nearly there yet. It isn’t having tantrum. Fretful knows something is wrong, and conveys the sense of wrongness to us. I didn’t even notice how well that word barbed the hook when I first read it, but it seized my attention by telling me that little girl was caught up in something wrong.

‘Fretfully’ creates tension, just as ‘you’ve been here before’ does. We’ve all been in a lot of places before, but nobody mentions it unless there’s something ominous about it. You’ve been in your local supermarket before and you’ll go again but when you push your trolley past the shelf stacker, she doesn’t turn round and say so. It would double your tension level if she did. Perhaps even enough to start a story.

‘You’ve been here before’ is something you hear when you tell your best friend that your girlfriend isn’t answering your calls, or when you ask whether it’s a good idea to max out your credit card on something you really want but don’t need. It tells you that you have enough experience to recognise the warning signs, but not enough of it to heed them. In Needful Things, the ominous words appear on top of several hundred pages suggesting that once again, the warnings will go unheeded.

Chasing moonbeams

In the unlikely event that King ever reads this, he probably won’t approve of the way I’m analysing him:

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(Kurt Haubrich / CC Flickr)

There are all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good opening line. It’s tricky thing, and tough to talk about because I don’t think conceptually while I work on a first draft — I just write. To get scientific about it is a little like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar.

Yet I don’t think it’s catching moonbeams in a jar to state that all of the best opening sentences I’ve read have tantalised me with that hint of tension.

At first sight, ‘You’ve been here before’ appears to contradict frequently repeated advice:

We’ve all heard the advice writing teachers give: Open a book in the middle of a dramatic or compelling situation.

That’s what I was trying to do with Peppermint Tea. Since I wrote that, I’ve come to think of it as excellent advice starting from the second sentence. That’s not to say that the first sentence can’t contain action, as Firestarter did. It means it’s not the most important thing. When I write my first sentence now, I am trying to grab my reader’s attention so they won’t pass on to someone else’s story.

Grabbing attention is actually more important for me than King. Most people who read his first sentence are already hooked by the words ‘Stephen’ and ‘King’ on the cover. Very few people know who DJ Cockburn is, so that first sentence has to carry all the weight.

The front door

One area where I differ from King is that he regards the first sentence as ‘the writer’s way in’:

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(Ivan Malkin / CC Flickr)

I think that’s why my books tend to begin as first sentences — I’ll write that opening sentence first, and when I get it right I’ll start to think I really have something.

For me, it used to be less a way in than a barricade I had to clamber over. I’d spend ages looking at a blank page and trying to work out where to start. After far too much deliberation, I’d come up with something like that opening for Peppermint Tea. It’s not terrible and it gets the story started, but it hardly leaps off the page.

Then I realised it didn’t matter where I started because my way in was for me, not the reader. When I’m editing, I’ll delete it and replace it with something that works as the reader’s way in. The reader will never see how I got in. I don’t build the house around the front door, but rather build it first and then knock a hole where I want the front door to be.

If the opening sentence of my most recent story, Foreclosure, is an improvement on Peppermint Tea, it’s partly thanks to the influence of Stephen King:

“Plenty of warm bodies at home. The debtor and the donor should be in there, with any luck.”

The most important sentence

The first sentence is only one of thousands, so why give it so much thought? The best it can do is grab the reader’s attention. If it does that job but the rest of the story doesn’t live up to it, the reader will start skimming until they get bored and chuck it away. As King puts it:

Listen, you can’t live on love, and you can’t create a writing career based on first lines.   

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(Derek Gavey / CC Flickr)

Every sentence in the story is important, but none more so than that first sentence. If my attention is captured by the first sentence, I’ll forgive a story for other sentences that don’t live up to it. There are limits to my forbearance; I’ll lose interest quickly enough if it’s not a good story. But the longer I spend reading, the more invested I become in the story. When I read the first sentence, I’m not invested at all so the words on the page have to do all the work.

Stephen King may not have based his career on his first lines, but it’s safe to say his career wouldn’t have been so successful if he wasn’t so damn good at them.

Do you have a favourite first line from a novel or story? Why do you think it has stayed with you? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification

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