I’ve been listening to the Great Courses lecture series titled Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition, a 42-CD set with 84 half-hour lectures offering bite-sized overviews of many of the influential figures in literary history. Last night I finished the Tolstoy lecture on Anna Karenina, which opens with this classic first sentence: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
That sentence, and others like it, got me thinking about the multitude of ways performers and song writers begin songs. The opening triggers a feel for what’s to come, and carries you, or slams you, into the song itself. The crowd noise at the beginning of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper conveys a sense of performance in which a curtain lifts and the opening chords tell us to get ready for the show.
Magical Mystery Tour begins with a trumpet fanfare of sorts and the voice of a conductor announcing it’s time to roll up for the Mystery Tour, “step right this way.” The last song on the album — originally released as a single — also begins with a trumpet fanfare, only this time it’s the French National Anthem, “La Marseillaise.”
Think about all the ways that your favorite songs begin. Sometimes it’s a bass line as in “Lady Madonna” and sometimes it’s a distinctive drum intro as in “Honky Tonk Women,” or a male chorus as in “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” When you hear the opening you know immediately, if you’re familiar with the piece, where it is going to take you.
Other songs with distinctive openings that come to mind for me included “Magic Bus” by The Who, “Layla” by Eric Clapton, “Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison, and that twangy guitar that opens “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash. A hundred more songs could be listed here and you probably have faves of your own you could share.
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Twenty-five years ago, after being an extra in the film Iron Will (shot here in Duluth) I imagined becoming a Hollywood screenwriter and wrote or co-wrote a few screenplays and treatments. In learning how to write for the silver screen I watched the first ten minutes of what seemed like a hundred movies (from the library). It was a learning experience. My favorite was probably Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. See how he tells the story, introducing one person at a time and developing the ten characters through mini-vignettes. Notice how the storyline is created when the tenth man climbs into the boat.
But alas, I wanted to share first lines of novels here. And we’d best get to it. Here are some first lines from my readings. Tale of Two Cities I read in ninth grade, so these are from a half century of reading.
As I reflected on this theme the first opening line that came to mind was that most famous Melville opening from Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” That’s a three-word sentence that conveys much when you assemble all of it’s associations. So direct.
The next that came to mind for me was this classic opening line:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
(Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens)
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.
(1984, George Orwell)
You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.
(The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain)
Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested. (The Trial, Franz Kafka)
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
(Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger)
Mother died today.
(The Stranger, Albert Camus)
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. (Neuromancer, William Gibson)
All this happened, more or less.
(Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut)
I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.
(Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton)
O.K. so that’s ten. Plus there were ten songs, for my self-imposed target of 20. One could easily make a list of first lines of songs that serve as setups, but this is as far as we’ll go here. Writers — whether playwrights, songwriters, poets or novelists — have a lot of weight on their shoulders when trying to write a first sentence or first paragraph. Bloggers also think about this.
Some other time we’ll look at endings. This time, though, I’ll end with another grand opening, from one of my favorite stories, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis:
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
What’s your favorite opening line?
Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com