I love it when my neuroses are validated. This time validation came from one of my literary heroes: Stephen King. While he’s not everyone’s mentor, the author of horror classics like The Stand and It inspired me to start writing back when I was an awkward pimple-faced teen. When he admitted to obsessing over first lines in a 2013 article for The Atlantic, I breathed a sigh of relief.
I’m in the middle of second draft revisions for a memoir I’m writing. It seems like every other day I’m tinkering with the first line in an attempt to get it right. In the Atlantic interview, King admits to spending months, even years, writing opening sentences. First lines are “the reader’s invitation into the world of the book,” he says. They have important work to do. They need to ground the reader in the situation, establish time and place, and most importantly hook the reader into wanting to know more. Curiosity is paramount.
Great opening lines, such as the example he uses from The Postman Always Rings Twice “They threw me off the hay truck around noon,” also introduce the writer’s style.
King and I approach projects in different ways. He continually revises the opening until he gets it right and then moves on. If I know a story’s good, I allow the opening paragraph to be a place holder as I write the story. I keep coming back to those first few sentences and whittling away at them until they feel right.
I’ve been doing a lot of whittling on that opening line. As a source of inspiration, I’m collecting first sentences from some of the memoirs. Here are a few I really like:
“Life changes fast.”
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
“Please, she whispers, “how may I help you?”
Nick Flynn, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
“Our car boiled over just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide.”
Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life
“The trees were tall, but I was taller, standing above them on a steep mountain slope in northern California.”
Cheryl Strayed, Wild
“My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.”
Mary Karr, The Liar’s Club
“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster.”
Jeanette Walls, The Glass Castle
“It’s not so much as I forgot, as I couldn’t bring myself to remember.”
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
“My mother grabbed the hot poker from the fireplace and said, “Get into the car.”
Domenica Ruta, With or Without You
Whether they’re simple or compound-complex sentences each one does the job King talks about. They hook, ignite curiosity, and ground the reader in the situation with beauty and grace.
Reading these first lines makes me feel like my continual tinkering isn’t just neurosis. It’s the heart of what we do as writers – revise until our guts settle.
So, what’s the current opening line for my story?
Everything I owned was shoved into three garbage bags we carried toward the highway.
My gut says this is it. Now it’s time to obsess about the ones that follow.
For more on King’s approach to first sentences, read the Atlantic article, ” Why Stephen King Spends ‘Months and Even Years’ Writing Opening Sentences.”