Hurling Bricks, or How to Get it Going: a Look at First Lines
by John E. Meredith
(A note from the editors: We wish to extend a massive thank you to John E. Meredith for being our VERY FIRST guest blogger! Welcome to The Asterisk, John! For the rest of the LCP Community, you're in for a special treat. Read on!)
Well, shit. Here we go. This is just as good a beginning as anything else you could write. Sure, it's no best of times, worst of times scenario, maybe not even a dark and stormy night. It's not pretty at all, but at least you're on your way.
We've all got favorites, those stories that start with a burst of wow, a mainline injection right into the cerebral cortex that leave us stunned and gasping, tripping and weeping on the beauty of words, ready to follow the writer wherever they might lead. So many writers have written such great openings that it's kinda intimidating for the rest of us poor bastards. Just take a gander at some of these:
"It was a pleasure to burn."
- Ray Bradbury, FAHRENHEIT 451
"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."
- Stephen King, THE GUNSLINGER
"They shoot the white girl first. With the rest of us they take their time."
- Toni Morrison, PARADISE
"We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold."
- Hunter S. Thompson, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS
"Max lived scared, always alert to the threat of disaster, and yet when disaster finally arrived he was relaxed."
- Raphael Yglesias, FEARLESS
"The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door."
- Cormac McCarthy, ALL THE PRETTY HORSES
"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect."
- Franz Kafka, METAMORPHOSIS
"Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."
- Joan Didion, THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING
Are you feeling inadequate yet?
That's certainly understandable. These are brilliant, damn-near perfect hooks to drag you into whatever waits past that first paragraph. These folks are masters at what they do, at least in that moment. What are we, but mere mortals, shuffling words around in a notebook or on a computer screen? We should drop to our knees and bow at their feet, repeating we're not worthy, we're not worthy.
Bullshit, I say.
Norman Mailer once said that you can judge a novel by its opening line. But guess what? He's dead now, and I can't remember a single opening line from anything he ever wrote. He was right that the first paragraph is one of the things that sells me on a book. Maybe it is for you too. I'm not going to argue that beginnings aren't important, but, really, they are just a means of getting us to the next line and then the next and then the next after that. I've written a bit as well, and tormenting myself over those first few lines just pumps the brakes on the rest of the story.
In a recent blog, one of the Loud Coffee Press editors spoke of the "driving need to get the words out once the moment strikes." They were referring to poetry, but the same idea applies to anything else we might want to write. For years I've been posting stories on Instagram, in almost daily installments, never really having a hard time getting it started or getting it done. It was like having a little deadline every day. But now that I've started working on my first novel, alone and furtively like most writers, it's been a different story.
It's been a struggle.
I've had to remind myself of a few things. There's something called the hurled brick theory of storytelling. Maybe it was Ray Bradbury in his brilliant book, Zen in the Art of Writing, but don't quote me on that. Whoever said it planted the seed in my writers brain long ago, so I'm paraphrasing a bit. Basically, it states that no one cares what the weather is like, what you had for breakfast, or where you are if a brick goes sailing through the air and smashes into your skull. As a writer, you start with the brick hitting the skull. Boom, there you go. A sight like that isn't pretty, it's definitely not poetry, but it's got your attention.
The more I dawdle over words, trying to find the perfect ones to unlock the entire universe, the more slippery they get. That's when I start to slow down, doubting not just the story I want to tell, but my ability to tell any story at all, sometimes even my own existence and my purpose on this earth. No good can come from hesitation. Sometimes we've gotta just hurl some shit at the wall and hope that some of it sticks.
The other thing I need to remember is that not even the so-called masters were perfect. Check out some of these clunkers:
"Sunset found her squatting in the grass, groaning. Every stool was worse than the one before, and smelled fouler."
- George R.R. Martin, A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE: A Dance With Dragons
Talk about a pile of shit.
Or, from an otherwise excellent storyteller:
"Hador Goldenhead was a lord of the Edain and well-beloved by the Eldar. He dwelt while his days lasted under the lordship of Fingolfin, who gave to him wide lands in that region of Hithlum . . . "
- JRR Tolkien, CHILDREN OF HURIN
And it goes on and on and on. This one doesn't, but maybe should:
"It began oddly."
- Philip Roth, THE BREAST
Instead, maybe it's better to consider a few openings that don't necessarily flow like poetry from silver tongues, but get it going and send a message to us fools who choose to do this writing thing:
"A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead."
- Graham Greene, THE END OF THE AFFAIR
That's not a great first line, but it is a great book, and feels like unbeatable advice from a writer who knew what he was doing. Not unlike this fellow, a bit of a genius himself, who takes the pressure off all of us with this opening salvo:
"If you're going to read this, don't bother."
- Chuck Palahniuk, CHOKE
Well, shit, Chuck. Way to reel 'em in, pal.
The thing is, whether he did or not, it doesn't feel like he tormented himself over that line. It feels like it just dropped out of his head, or, more appropriately, outta the head of his protagonist. Kinda like he'd been hit by a brick.
- j. meredith
John E. Meredith is another writer just trying to keep the lights on and the inspiration flowing. Though he's been saying it for a while, he's working on his first novel, while getting distracted by all the other things he wants to write about. Check out his stories on Instagram at @John_E_Meredith, his poetic ramblings on @scribe_69 and his photography on @sixtyninescorpions. He writes for a variety of places, but his especially fond of Psycho Drive-In (and LCP, of course). Feel free to haunt his Facebook page as well. He'll talk to almost anyone about anything.
Love John's post? HIT THAT HEART... please. Then, leave us a great opening line below!
Or, you know... wink, wink...