Great Opening Lines – and Why! (Part 1 – Introduction)

The difference between a good Scotch, a good wine and a good sentence has a lot to do with being a good mechanic

This post is the first in a series on what makes any story’s – flash through novel – opening line great. Let me know what you think are great opening lines and I’ll include them in the series provided you explain what makes them great.

Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One is a good, fun read.

Fish writes about beautiful sentences and how they’re constructed. He offers that Strunk&White is useful only if you already know lots of grammar and such. I’ve got no problem with that (have you read Strunk&White? It’s a treasure trove. Are you an author or author-wannabe? Do yourself a favor and read it).

Strunk&White is basically a mechanic’s manual for producing clear, understandable content in the English language, meaning unless you’re willing to get a set of wrenches and such and unless you’re willing to open the hood or climb under your sentence, don’t read the book, you won’t understand it and will probably do both yourself and your prose harm if you do.

You don’t need to know how to fix your car if all you’re ever going to do is drive it. Want your car to drive well, be safe, get you hither and yon and back again with no adventures or excitements along the way? Make sure you have a good mechanic taking care of your car.

Authors, this means “Make sure you have a great editor or two unless you’re willing to learn basic mechanics.”

If you’re an author or author-wannabe, roll up your sleeves, prepare to get dirty and learn how to use your wrenches, screwdrivers, ball-peens, allens, et cetera, the differences between lockwashers and lugnuts and why you can’t tune your crankshaft but must tune your carburetor.

And if you are an author or author-wannabe, get some great editors anyway. Writing good prose is more complex that fixing cars. You might get killed driving a poorly maintained car but you’ll never get published putting out poorly written prose.

To some people, death and not getting published are the same thing.

What’s a “Beautiful Sentence”?
Fish also explains how to recognize a beautiful sentence.

Here I have problems. If something isn’t obviously beautiful then the determination is subjective and who decides one person’s opinion merits more than another’s?

Democracy is based on the assumption that a million men are wiser than one man. How’s that again? I missed something.
Autocracy is based on the assumption that one man is wiser than a million men. Let’s play that over again, too. Who decides? – Robert A. Heinlein, in Time Enough for Love

Biologically humans are designed to recognize pleasure and pain, that’s about it. Pleasure basically means you like it and want more. Pain means you don’t like it and want less (or better, none).

Certain things taste good because we evolved to favor what was useful but scarce in our evolutionary history (like sugars and fats). Other things taste bad because we evolved to disfavor things that weren’t useful or possibly harmful in our evolutionary history (like certain mushrooms and rotten carcasses).

But (an important but) we can learn to favor things our biology tells us to stay away from.

Example: A friend co-bid on a bottle of rare wine. He spent a lot of money and a lot of time learning to like rare wines. His bid got him less than a shotglass of wine. Maybe a taste, not even a mouthful. Not sure it even qualified as a sip.

He gushed over the wine.

Me? I’m a wine peon. Give me a $7 bottle of Rex Goliath and I’m happy. Give me a sip of a $25-30 bottle of wine and the tannic acid gives me a headache. Imagine how I’d respond to an $800 bottle.

My first taste of Scotch took place in a pub in Fort William, Scotland. The locals got a hoot out of my reaction. How could anybody drink this stuff?

Now I can tell by aroma alone if a Scotch is a Macallan, an Abelour, a Lagavullin, a Laphroaig, a Balvenie, an Oban, … What you need to know is that I spent a night (I’m talking 7pm to 5am) and a week with a fhear-Leòdhasach learning about Scotches (Tapadh Leibh, Calum). Susan (wife/partner/Princess) thinks Scotches taste like iodine (Goody! More for me!).

We’re taking a wine appreciation course. I may wrestle my friend for a sip of $800 wine in the near future.

My point is, education and/or training matter. Once you get past the technical “doer, doing, done to” sentence construction (Fish’s eloquence, not mine), any statement about a sentence’s beauty is subjective, relative and pure opinion. The more you know, the more training and education you have, the more you can explain what makes a wine, a Scotch or a sentence better than others.

It’ll still be subjective, though.

Fortunately, I’m good with that, too.

So long as your education and training don’t get in the way of enjoyment. In fact, they should increase your enjoyment. If your enjoyment level doesn’t change, you’ve wasted time and money. That I’m not good with.

Ever seen a toddler overcome with joy? Didn’t take any education/training, did it?

Next up – What Makes a Great Opening Line?

Agus Slainte!