Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton is an infamous book -- not because of its explicit sex scenes (there are none) or its fascinating title (worst title ever?), but because of its opening line: It was a dark and stormy night... You most likely know nothing else about the novel, but you know that line. And in the power of that line, we find today's discussion.
For a beginning author, an evocative opening line is the tenth or eleventh (depending on if you're including nudie photos) best thing you can do for your manuscript. Editors and agents, these days, judge you largely on whether you can knock the wind from their porcine bellies with a gusting salvo (that and the nudie photos).
Sure, It was a dark and stormy night (here-to-forth referred to as IWADASN) is now a cliché, the very mark of a hack writer -- why there is even a Bulwer-Lytton contest at San Jose State University (that hallowed institution of brilliant creativity) in which dilettantes compete to craft the worst opening line ever. Bulwer-Lytton makes an easy target now, but back in his time, that line was an innovation (yes, jackals, I know that there is debate as to whether Washington Irving predated IWADASN in his own novel, A History of New York -- I can read Wikipedia too... dickheads). I ask you though: how did IWADASN become cliché? By being good.
Here is a simple test to see if you have what it takes to craft an opening line that hooks readers behind their nutsacks and drags them in (girls have nutsacks too, right?). Which one of the following sentences seems like the better opening line?
Franklin always believed that a high-yield portfolio was the chassis of comfortable living.
Mindy's gigantic tits flap in the wind as she flings the Ducati onto the prow of the speedboat; the vibrations of the racing bike between her legs feeling yummy.
You see how the two sentences are essentially the same thing, and yet, one just seems to read more... dynamic? By all means read what you want, but as a happily married man who recently turned 30, I am fully intrigued as to how Franklin can actualize long-term profit on risk-heavy dividends in a bear market. Of course I'm kidding.
But that simple monkeyshine illustrates a valid concern in the everlasting world of literature; namely, that once upon a time, some books became classics without good opening lines. Take, for instance, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: "In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice I've been turning over in my mind ever since." The snooze button is broken on the alarm clock in hell, people! It astounds me that anybody would utilize that abortion of a novel for anything more than toilet paper in a whorehouse. For ol' Fitzy's sake, bear in mind that he's currently dead.
You'd think it was tough to find a less enticing opening than that one, right? Well, check out another so-called classic: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." This God fellow doesn't sound like he's got a sustainable narrative, does he? I haven't read it, but I'd imagine this book fractures off into a bunch of meaningless one-note characters that are always begetting one another and espousing false hope. At best, modern editors would send this thing back with a terse, unsigned, form rejection letter. And yet, in its time, it was a best seller. No wonder Borders went dick up in the era of the big box stores... imagine if Bed Bath and Beyond tried shilling toasters that didn't heat stamp my bread with my favorite NFL team's logo -- ugh, how unappealing does that sound?
Those books may have somehow "worked" in the past, back before there was Will Ferrell's Twitter account to compete with, but in this day and age, a brilliant opener is the difference between writing books, and using them as kneepads when you're fellating hot dog vendors for a sense of self-worth. Don't believe me? Just ask someone who majored in Creative Writing at San Jose State. Of course, you'll have to wait until their mouth isn't full...