Friday, April 24, 2020

That Important First Line

Think about your favorite opening movie scene. Visualize it in your mind. Mine has to be the original Star Wars movie - After the prologue sweeps by, we see this spacecraft being fired upon by another ship. A Star Destroyer, as it turns out. And it is huge. Freaking huge. It passes across the camera view and just keeps on flooding the screen. It's monolithic. The view is just overwhelming. If that doesn't get someone riled up about watching a space-opera-style movie, what else could?

In a book, the first line should have nothing to do with that.

The reason I use the movie parallel is because is it common to envision the opening part of any story in a visual manner, then translate it into words. This is a reasonable approach - after all, that's how storytelling works. We think of a story, create a visual about it, then translate it onto the page with all the description, texture, and moodiness to fill in the rest.

Writing, however, is a bit different. Or should I say, writing a story is different than the storytelling part in some ways, and those differences are crucial. Going back to our Star Wars opening, let's pull in the mood of that moment, and invest some time with another sense - sound. We start with the prologue scrolling by to a big John Williams orchestral composition - a huge build-up there. What happens? The prologue fades and the music shifts to one little flute (I think it's a flute) playing over a scene of the vastness of space. That's a huge mood shift, and the viewer feels it.

Of course, Princess Leia's little craft enters the scene without much fanfare, followed by the Star Destroyer that is just sound and fury everywhere. Never mind the visual, the deep bass vibrations told you this monstrous, hulking ship was bad news. It overwhelmed the music from Leia's craft, and established everything you could imagine about what was awaiting the poor little ship as it got captured.

And all that without a word spoken.

Opening lines have to carry this kind of effect. The great opening lines don't just communicate the scene, they establish the mood. That first line often does not describe an opening scene, but sets the emotional stage for the story to come. A great opening line might not even have anything to to with fleshing out the visuals at all. It just needs to grab the reader's interest and invest them enough to move things forward. If it plants a question in their mind, then all the better.

(For more opening line suggestions, I also recommend an earlier post, "The First Words are the Hardest.")

I don't own any of the books that came out based on the Star Wars movies. I would be curious to see the opening lines, and see if they come close to the drama of that one scene. Somehow, I doubt it. My opening line would be something like, "Princess Leia had no way to escape this time; but she had a plan that the entire rebel cause depended on." No talk about the ships or space, but a quick jump that describes everything we need to know about the setting.

Want a fun writing prompt? Write the narrative opening lines for your favorite movies, and see what comes up.

2 comments:

  1. That sound, that sound! My hands over my ears did not block that sound, and that sound plays over and over in my endless nightmares.

    ~my potential opening for the novel based on the movie, Twister

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    1. Now keep writing - maybe there's a story that will be better than Twister (no offense toward the movie)

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