. . . Let me tell you a story.”
Like the author of this recent Gawker post about novels with compelling opening sentences, which includes many relatively recent books, I was inspired by Joe Fassler’s 2013 Atlantic interview with Stephen King, in which King talked about the first lines of his books and why those first words are so important. His all-time favorite opener, from Needful Things: “You’ve been here before.” King says he spends weeks, months—years sometimes—getting them exactly right, so remembers them well: “They were a doorway I went through.”
Analyzing King’s Approach
The opening line of King’s 11/22/63 is “I’ve never been what you’d call a crying man,” and the reader immediately and correctly anticipates a fair amount of crying before the last page is turned. The opening line of It: “The terror that would not end for another 28 years, if it ever did, began so far as I can know or tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”
Fassler’s interview made me think, “He’s a big success, right? Maybe I can learn something here.”
So I visited my library and pulled all the King books they had on hand—18 different novels. I sat at a table and wrote out the first few sentences of each. (If you’ve never done this, try handwriting passages from a book you admire. For some reason, possibly in sync with research on how people learn, the act of hand-copying a text puts you—well, me, anyway—in the author’s mindframe much more directly and powerfully than reading the same words or typing them out.)
What the First Lines Contain
What I found out by doing this is that the opening sentences of many Stephen King novels have certain characteristics in common. They:
- Put the reader in a precise location and time
- Identify the protagonist, usually by name
- Address the reader directly – “you”
- Use simple language and quotidian details, which create an easy tone (nice rhythm, too)
- Include something to provoke a vague anxiety
- Put the protagonist’s experience in a larger context
- In some way invite the reader to “sit and listen to a story.”
Recently I read King’s Mr. Mercedes (2014), which does 2, 4, 5, 6 and to some extent 1—at least he gets the reader into the geographic and temporal ballpark:
“Augie Odenkirk (2) had a 1997 Datsun that still ran well in spite of high mileage (1-ish), but gas was expensive, especially for a man with no job (4, 6), and City Center was on the far side of town (1-ish), so he decided to take the last bus of the night (5).”
And, another example, from The Tommyknockers (1987):
“For want of a nail the kingdom was lost, that’s how the catechism goes when you boil it down (5). In the end, you can boil everything down to something similar—or so Roberta Anderson thought much later on (2, 3). It’s either all an accident . . . or all fate (6). Anderson literally stumbled over her destiny in the small town of Haven, Maine, on June 21, 1988(1, 4). That stumble was the root of the matter; all the rest was nothing but history (7).”
A look back at King’s very first novel, Carrie (1974) shows he used these methods from the start, though his technique has grown in subtlety and creativity over time. Carrie begins:
“News item from the Westover (Me.) weekly Enterprise, August 19, 1966 (1):
“Rain of Stones Reported
“It was reliably reported by several persons that a rain of stones fell from a clear blue sky on Carlin Street in the town of Chamberlain on August 17th (4). The stones fell principally on the home of Mrs. Margaret White, damaging the roof extensively and ruining two gutters and a downspout valued at approximately $25 (4). Mrs. White, a widow, lives with her three-year-old daughter, Carietta (2).
“Mrs. White could not be reached for comment (5).”
These examples invite the reader in like a cafe’s bright lights as dark is coming on. They say, “Sit down, listen, let me tell you about this.” I wouldn’t describe King’s approach as a “formula,” because his books begin in such different ways, but rather a discipline. Early on, he gives readers a clear sense of “who, what, when, and where,” and the rest of the book provides the “why.”
In My Own Writing
So what did I learn from this exercise? I rewrote the beginning scenes of my two novels with these thoughts in mind, making several tries of it, and was sure to name the books’ protagonists and place them precisely in time and location, use simple language, and forecast the larger context of the action. And I’m happier with the result. We’ll see what comes of it.
If you have some King sitting on your bookshelf and look for these 7 points, I’d be interested to know what you find.
Famous First Lines
- A list emphasizing the classics, starting with Herman Melville’s “Call me Ishmael.”
- Writers reveal their favorite first lines in this list.
Excellent analysis of first lines. I attended Murder in the Magic City yesterday and thinking back, as I peered some of the different books in the bookstore or listened to the panelists, your point about first lines rang true. Most of the books I bought captured me to want to know “why” from the premise set up in the first line.
Your exercise in writing things out also is a good one for a writer trying to learn.
I collect “first lines.” And write down the ones that come to me in the shower, hoping someday there will be a story attached! I’ve had the crime story I’m working on now rattling around in my brain for several years but could not figure out where to start it. Once that became clear, the writing fell into place. But what do I know? All my children are beautiful!