Friday, January 18, 2013

First Line Friday: Stage Directions

Here’s another way to open your novel: Just start throwing stage directions around. Don’t worry about giving us a verb- just start naming stuff. Describe things. Give us a flavor for the stage set.

Take the opening of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy . I read the first three or four “sentences” of this book and couldn’t find a verb that addresses any of the subjects anywhere .
“Dusk- of a summer night.
“And the tall walls of the commercial heart of an American city of perhaps 400,000 inhabitants- such walls as in time may linger as a mere fable.
“And up the broad street, now comparatively hushed, a little band of six,-a man of about fifty, short, stout, with bushy hair protruding from under a round black felt hat, a most unimportant-looking person, who carried a small portable organ such as is customarily used by street preachers and singers. And with him a awoman perhaps five years his junior, taller, not so broad, but solid….”
It’s kind of a strange effect. You feel less like a reader than you feel like a studio executive getting pitched a new movie concept. But it doesn’t have to describe setting, this kind of opening can just as easily show you what’s inside the narrator’s brain, like this classic first line from Nabokov’s Lolita :
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
Nabokov’s done this elsewhere, of course. Here is the opener from Bend Sinister :
“An oblong puddle inset in the coarse asphalt; like a fancy footprint filled to the brim with quicksilver; like a spatulate hole through which you can see the nether sky. Surrounded, I note, by a diffuse tentacled black dampness where some dull dun dead leaves have stuck. Drowned, I should say, before the puddle had shrunk to its present size.”
What do you think? Do stage directions work for you? Or do you just want the author to get on with the story?

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