Sept 12, 2012–This sentence is supposed to make you want to read the rest of this column.
I am fascinated with the power of first lines.
Their importance is under appreciated. One brief string of words has the burden of drawing the attention of potential readers from the distractions of the world and convincing them to read what is on your mind.
Columnists, songwriters, novelists, and newspaper reporters all face this challenge. Consider famous first lines. Where have you read these?
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
The first, of course, is the start of the Bible; the second is from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
Some say the all-time best first sentence of a novel was written by Gabriel García Márquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
In 25 words, the author took us into the future and into the past, introduced the character, hinted at his relationships with his family, and created a mystery. Wow.
The worst opening is the cliched “It was a dark and stormy night,” made famous now by Snoopy in his oft-started, never finished writing attempts (it was the actual first line of a novel by the author Edward Bulwer-Lytton).
In song lyrics, the most memorable first lines are the ones that tell the whole story. They include these:
“You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips”
The Righteous Brothers You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’
“We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee”
Merle Haggard Okie From Muskokee
“I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand”
Warren Zevon Werewolves Of London
“You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain”
Jerry Lee Lewis Great Balls of Fire
“When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all”
Paul Simon Kodachrome
And perhaps the best ever:
“Well, I woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt”
Kris Kristofferson Sunday Morning Coming Down
Who can’t relate to that? One often cited, but never understood by me:
“Jeremiah was a bullfrog”
Three Dog Night Joy to the World
And we can’t forget the immortal: “A-Wop-bop-a-loo-lop a-lop-bam-boo!”
The best piece of advice I ever heard was that everyone’s writing would be improved by deleting the entire first paragraph. So often writers try to sneak up on their topic, feeling they can cook the reader like slipping a lobster into a pot of cold water and bringing it to a boil. Better to turn up the heat and throw them in headfirst.
I’ve always enjoyed looking back on my own columns and checking that my first sentence did its duty of tricking… er… enticing the reader to actually read the rest of it.
Some of my faves:
“We don’t practice. We don’t play any place that doesn’t serve beer. We don’t wear leather pants.”
From an article about the Polkamatics.
Q: What’s the difference between an oboe and an onion?
A: No one cries when you chop up an oboe.
From an article on musician jokes.
It used to be something you did only in the shower. Now, people stand up in front of crowds and do it to wild applause.
From an article about karaoke.
To get started in the emceeing field, Tim Weinheimer had to fake a rodeo.
What would you do if your house burned down, you spent time in the hoosegow, and your first name was Lucky?
Elvis may be dead. But he still plays Fredericksburg.
Have you ever been to a funeral that you didn’t want to end?
Just as “fruitcake” is an affront to both fruit and cake, “Christmas music” often insults both the season and the sound.
George Harrison composed his hit songs on it, Steve Allen made Lipton soup in it, and at one time it was the most popular instrument in the United States.
That last one is about the ukulele.
Anyway, if you are still reading, then my first sentence did its job. If you are not still reading, you’ll never know how this column ended.