MONTPELIER, VT: Is your creative writing work-in-progress handy? I’ll wait a moment while you fetch it. Got it in hand now? Okay. Read the opening three lines aloud. Then read the closing three lines. Did you hear music?
That’s the question Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing student Nancy Levine asked in her graduation lecture, “Hello and Goodbye: How the First Three Lines and Last Three Lines of Prose Burn Into Our Memory.” Her lecture will be burned into mine for some time.
It’s not uncommon for writers to be told to focus intently on their opening sentence, and nearly as frequently told the same thing on the closing one. But Nancy took it a step further, looking at three lines apiece. She quoted Pamela Painter, who as the editor of Ploughshares read the first three lines of every manuscript submitted and toss aside any that didn’t grab her. Harsh? Sure. But she’s reviewing a lot of manuscripts, and readers have a lot of stories to choose from.
So if we all agree that these opening–and yes, closing–lines are important, how do we make them sing?
Nancy analyzed a number of compelling writers–F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kazuo Ishiguro, Raymond Carver, Joan Didion, and VCFA’s own Connie May Fowler–and identified some common elements, despite the wide stylistic differences in their prose.
- It starts with a strong narrative voice. Some readers may recall I wrote up another VCFA lecture the other day on voice–which happened to include Connie May Fowler–so the lessons there are a good place to start. Nancy explained that whether the narrator is reliable like Nick Carraway or unreliable like Humbert Humbert, a strong voice not only grabs you but lights a path of understanding of what will follow.
- Sensory detail. Ishiguro in the opening of The Remains of the Day, Nancy notes, has his narrator not just telling us of an upcoming trip, he notes it will be in “the comfort of Mr. Farraday’s Ford” and that the idea for the trip first arose “while I had been dusting the portraits in the library.” These small details demonstrate the narrator’s mindset and role in the story.
- Sense of place. Nancy points out that Raymond Carver in the opening of the short story “Why Don’t You Dance” informs us that the narrator’s bedroom set, including his wife’s nightstand and reading lamp, are outside on his front yard. He does not do so in the flat manner I just demonstrated, however, but through poignant detail that set you in the kitchen with the narrator looking out at the yard, including the touch that the nightstand and lamp are arranged by the bed just as they were when in the bedroom.
- Syntax consistent with emotion. Here Nancy cites one of a role model of mine, Joan Didion. She analyzes both The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights (as it happened, those were two of the four books I analyzed last fall when writing my MFA critical thesis). Take a look at the opening three lines of The Year of Magical Thinking:
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
“Ever notice what we say when we stub our toe hard?” Nancy asks. Then she begins uttering guttural profanities, a delightful wake-up for the audience from this woman who appears so innocent. (We love you, Nancy!) She notes that the bluntness of these sentences echoes the reaction one would have at a sudden loss; in this case it was her longtime husband dying at the dinner table. Nancy then takes us to the end of that memoir, where Joan is describing a swim she and her husband used to do in a bay off the California coast. Joan feared the tide but her husband was brave:
You had to go with the change. He told me that. No eye is on the sparrow but he did tell me that.
At the end of the book, the reader believes Joan is ready to move on with her life. It’s not that she’s moved on from her life with her husband–far from it, she is reliving a memory with him–but she’s found the bravery to press on with only the memory of him.
I’ve read this book about three times, as it’s been a touchstone for me in developing my own memoir voice. But I had forgotten the beauty of how Didion opens her book with a closing of a life, and closes her book with an opening of a changed life. Masterful.
And Nancy’s lecture was masterful as well. She instructed us that when we feel our work is “finished,” that is the time to focus in on our three opening and closing lines. Read them aloud. Ensure they “make music,” while setting the framework for the reader’s full appreciation of the piece. If you choose not to do this, she said with her signature humor, “be sure to hold on to that great day job.”
What lessons have you learned as you examine great opening and closing lines or work on crafting them yourself? What opening lines have grabbed you and lingered with you?