Observations on First Lines and Voice in Fiction

The opening lines of a novel matter (there are lists, after all, for such things, the “Best First Lines from Novels“). Point of view is set. Characters are introduced. Voice is established. And maybe more, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez notes:

One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily. In the first paragraph you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone. At least in my case, the first paragraph is a kind of sample of what the rest of the book is going to be.

So what happens when writers cast out those first lines? Where do the words come from? What is the writer looking for? And how does he or she know when they’ve found it? Below are author insights culled mostly from The Paris Review interviews.

John Steinbeck: I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straitening shyness that assail one. It is as though the words were not only indelible but that they spread out like dye in water and color everything around them. A strange and mystic business, writing.

Edna O’Brien: I always have the first line. Even with my very first book, The Country Girls, I went around with this first sentence in my head long before I sat down to write it.

Joseph Heller: My novels begin in a strange way. I don’t begin with a theme or even a character. I begin with a first sentence that is independent of any conscious preparation. Most often nothing comes out of it: a sentence will come to mind that doesn’t lead to a second sentence. Sometimes it will lead to thirty sentences which then come to a dead end.

I was alone on the deck. As I sat there worrying and wondering what to do, one of those first lines suddenly came to mind: “In the office in which I work, there are four people of whom I am afraid. Each of these four people is afraid of five people.” Immediately, the lines presented a whole explosion of possibilities and choices—characters (working in a corporation), a tone, a mood of anxiety, or insecurity. In that first hour (before someone came along and asked me to go to the beach), I knew the beginning, the ending, most of the middle . . .

Was it the same process of “receiving” a first line with Catch-22?

Just about. I was lying in bed in my four-room apartment on the West Side when suddenly this line came to me: “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, Someone fell madly in love with him.” I didn’t have the name Yossarian. The chaplain wasn’t necessarily an army chaplain—he could have been a prison chaplain. But as soon as the opening sentence was available, the book began to evolve clearly in my mind—even most of the particulars . . . the tone, the form, many of the characters, including some I eventually couldn’t use. All of this took place within an hour and a half.

Joan Didion: What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.

Elizabeth Hardwick: I don’t have many plots and perhaps as a justification I sometimes think: If I want a plot I’ll watch Dallas. I think it’s mood. No, I mean tone. Tone arrived at by language. I can’t write a story or an essay until I can, by revision after revision, get the opening tone right. Sometimes it seems to take forever, but when I have it I can usually go on. It’s a matter of the voice, how you are going to approach the task at hand. It’s all language and rhythm and the establishment of the relation to the material, of who’s speaking, not speaking as a person exactly, but as a mind, a sensibility.

Can you always arrive at the tone you want?

No, I can’t, and when that happens I put the work aside. But I’ve noticed that the effort is always useful. I mostly use the things, sometime, somewhere, that I’ve abandoned. They’ve been worked on, exist, if only in a few pages—and the old yellow pages flaking away in a drawer turn out to be useful. I don’t know what I’m thinking about a particular thing until I have some kind of draft. It’s the actual execution that tells me what I want to say, what I always wanted to say when I started.

Lorrie Moore: In general, if a person were to watch me work—which I am grateful no one ever has—I suspect it might look like a lot of cutting and pasting of notes, stopping, starting, staring, intermittent flurries (as the weatherpeople say), sudden visitations (by invisible forces), the contemplation of the spines of various dictionaries and reference books stacked behind the computer, and much reheating of cold coffee (a metaphor and not a metaphor). But what it feels like is running as far as I can with a voice, a tuneful patch of a long, nagging idea.

James Salter: Above all, it must be compelling. You’re sitting around the campfire of literature, so to speak, and various voices speak up out of the dark and begin talking. With some, your mind wanders or you doze off, but with others you are held by every word. The first line, the first sentence, the first paragraph, all have to compel you.

Further, I think, it should be memorable. It must have significance. Merely because something has been written is not adequate justification for it. A story doesn’t have to surprise—Mishima’s “Patriotism” disdains surprise. It needn’t be dramatic—Peter Taylor’s “A Wife of Nashville” has no drama. What it must do is somehow astonish you, and what it must be is somehow complete.

Ottessa Moshfegh (from Bomb Magazine): My mind is so dumb when I write. Each story requires a different style of stupidity. I just write down what the voice has to say. I use my intellect in the final stages of editing, when I stand back and get thoughtful about what the story actually is and what a stranger’s experience of it might be . . . . In a more general way, finding the voice has less to do with the imagination, and more to do with designation, like casting an actor in a movie. I ventriloquize the voices at first, but then they pretty much take over. That was particularly true in McGlue.

LS: What do you mean, “designation”?

OM: I mean I’m not sitting around going, What can I invent? Rather, there are tones and language and inflections to my thoughts and feelings. If I’m moved to express them in a story, I assign a voice to them, and the voice will dictate the story. I designate that task to the voice. You do the talking, I say to it. Am I making sense?

Jeffrey Eugenides: At that point, I knew it would be a comic epic. It took me a long time to get the right voice for the novel, but I knew I had a big book on my hands. . . . A narrative voice allows you to say things you couldn’t otherwise. It frees you from the prison of the ego and the limitations of habitual thinking. One of the great mysteries of writing fiction, and one of the greatest pleasures, is the discovery of a voice that opens up a channel to impersonal, but specific, knowledge. . . . .  I was trying to find a narrative voice that would be at once omniscient and authoritative, but also flavored with the consciousnesses of the characters I was writing about. On the one hand, it had to sound the way my characters think and be expressive of their youth, personalities, and level of education, and on the other it had to be flexible enough to open up gaps where authorial comment could operate, to move in or out depending on necessity. I don’t think the voice is austere, but it’s certainly less showy than the voices of my other novels.

John Hersey: The voice is the element over which you have no control; it’s the sound of the person behind the work. I suppose there are some more or less conscious elements in voice; that is to say, a self-conscious manipulation of rhythm that may become habitual. But even the rhythms, it seems to me, stem from personality rather than from something acquired or mechanical. They’re the tremblings of individuality. A person whose mind blurts will blurt in prose, and a person whose mind flows will flow in prose. Even writers who have experimented can’t avoid this—a model would be Faulkner, who tried so many different ways of solving fictional problems, yet the voice was always clearly Faulkner’s. He was helpless in that respect; his voice was his voice.
I found the struggles of students who were trying to find themselves as writers fascinating and very moving. I think that their struggles somehow had echoes in my own continuing struggles. A writer never really finds his voice, but is always striving, I think, to find it. This is one of the reasons I’ve had a horror of repeating myself. I believed that if I ever concluded that I knew exactly what my voice was, I would stagnate. The writer grows, has experiences, feels joys and pains that somehow accrete and change him, so that the voice that was appropriate when I wrote A Bell for Adano was not appropriate when I wrote The Call. What I’m saying is that I think I learned from students that the struggle that was so intense in their case was still appropriate for me.

Alan Hollinghurst: I remember it took me a little while to settle into a first-person voice that wasn’t my own. I was still working out how this young man I was impersonating would want to sound. By the second chapter I had it. Then at the end of the book I went back and harmonized the opening with the rest.

Barry Hannah: It took me about three years and was not the work of an instant genius. At some point, I realized I had made about a three-hundred-page error so I had to back up and change the point of view. It seemed like I was an old man then because I was typing at night and in spurts with quite a bit of anguish, you know, writing a couple hundred pages in the wrong voice (I started it in third) and then going back to first person. I also had a family and four courses to teach at Clemson. I remember those years.

T. Coraghessan Boyle: No, it’s an organic process. I have an idea and a first line—and that suggests the rest of it. I have little concept of what I’m going to say, or where it’s going. I have some idea of how long it’s going to be—but not what will happen or what the themes will be. That’s the intrigue of doing it—it’s a process of discovery. You get to discover what you’re going to say and what it’s going to mean.

That’s interesting . . . the first line. Joe Heller couldn’t write a word unless the first line popped into his mind, which unleashed a whole series of characters, scenes . . . Is that the way it works with you? What are some of the first lines?

Yes, I feel that too, but maybe not so thoroughly as Heller did. The first line isn’t unleashing much, but there’s certainly been a lot of thought and preparation for it, and certainly it suggests what’s to come—again, in the way of the first piece of a jigsaw puzzle. But you’re putting me on the spot with regard to first lines. World’s End starts like this: “On the day he lost his right foot, Walter Van Brunt had been haunted, however haphazardly, by ghosts of the past.” A Friend of the Earth begins: “I’m out feeding the hyena her kibble and chicken backs when the call comes through.” And, most famously, I suppose, the opening line of “Descent of Man”: “I was living with a woman who suddenly began to stink.” The first lines are provocative, I suppose, because they are meant not simply to provoke the reader but to provoke the writer—in this instance, me—to forge on.




One response to “Observations on First Lines and Voice in Fiction

  1. Reblogged this on Write, Rather and commented:
    Some really great advice from famous writers on famous first lines (of novels and such!)

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