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Strong Openers

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  • I have been thinking a lot about strong opening lines. A good introduction is a foundation, and in a book, it is here that you build the rest of the story as a reader. You know, or at least I do, very quickly whether or not a book is going to be worth it based on the first few opening lines.

    “When Marvin Gaye sang the National Anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, he knew he was going to die soon.” Hanif Abdurraqib opens They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, a collection of essays on music and culture with this line. It’s a good line to start on; the book is honestly full of solid quotations, peppered throughout with the kind of language you can sit and smoke a cigar with, and this sets the scene nicely for how the book is going to go. Abdurraqib writes a lot in this collection about the relationship between black culture and music, about the intersection between the personal and the celebrity. This opening line sets the stage.

    It’s not that a bad opening line will sour the experience; there are many initial lines in good books, forgotten in the deluge of the words that follow them. But a good opening line is like the sound of opening a can of soda on a hot day, it’s a promise of things to come. It’s a refreshing twist in the air. You know, as soon as you hear it, that you’re going to find something good inside.

    “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.” There’s been a lot written about the opening paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, but that’s because it’s both terribly unnerving and very good at setting the stage for the steadily creeping horror that is to follow. The first line tells you that you are to expect a live organism; the second let’s you know that the live organism is a house. The promise of that opening line is delivered throughout the book, it lets you know that there is something very wrong, and you never really forget that. The foundation is one of unease.

    The opening of The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation is in many ways also an ending. It begins with the violent and brutal death of its main character; but it’s a violent and brutal death that’s emotionally unearned, in a universe you have not yet begun to occupy. It’s an unsettling way to begin a story, but one that slowly unfurls over the course of the rest of the novel. You learn each of the characters in the opening, as though in reverse. The real horror of the death isn’t clear until most of the way through the novel, and it’s the way that the novel begins. I still don’t know if that’s a good way to begin a story or not.

    Opening lines are the promise of what’s to come, and in the cases where they’re done well, they’re a promise delivered. We sit, like half-remembered companions, with a solid opener until the end of the book, where they depart into the night.

     

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