So my publisher, Lulu.com, has been tweeting some great classic opening lines from novels. Whenever I spot this I always wonder if Shakespeare can play. We’ve talked about best opening lines in the past, but going head to head against the novel, I wonder if it’s still a fair fight.
Take the example that caught my eye and made me think of this:
They shoot the white girl first.
That’s from Toni Morrison’s Paradise, and dang if it’s not a pretty powerful opener. I’ve never even heard of that book, and yet in 6 words I’m here thinking “What the? Who are they shooting? Who’s doing the shooting? Why are they shooting?”
I remember some writing advice from Kurt Vonnegut, where he said something along the lines of “Throw away the first 20 pages of your story, you’ve said nothing.” I think this is the kind of line he was talking about. Don’t lead up to it, just drop the reader right into the middle of the action and leave them with a hundred questions about where they are and why things are happening.
With that in mind, is a Shakespearean opening line the same thing? You don’t have a reader, you have an audience. You don’t have a narrator, you have actors. Shakespeare was certainly good at taking time out of joint and sticking 2 hours traffic up on the stage, no doubt about it. The story of Lear’s a great example – we have no history at all of their family life, of what happened to the mother, of whether the king was a good king … and yet we don’t really need any of that, either, to still fully appreciate the story. But it’s not like in the opening scene you find yourself saying “Wait, what? Where’s the mother in all this?”
Which of Shakespeare’s openings is in the same camp? “Two households, both alike in dignity…” is a good line, but it’s more exposition than action. The same with “O for a muse of Fire!” The latter’s perhaps a little better, as you’re hopefully left wondering “Ok, who is this guy? What’s his deal?”
What about the more active openings? The witches have a good one. “When shall we three meet again?” What do you mean, again? We’ve missed your first meeting? Who are you and why are you meeting?
Then again, we’re talking about a meeting. In my initial example there’s a shooting. They’re pretty different on ye olde “heart pumping” scale.
See what I’m getting at? Shakespeare had a point, and the man crafted a killer story to make his point. We all get hooked the minute they begin talking, because we know how good the rest of the story is. But imagine sitting down with no knowledge of the story at all, and hearing a Shakespeare opening. Which one’s going to hook a modern audience best?