Why Stephen King Spends 'Months and Even Years' Writing Opening Sentences

The author of horror classics like The Shining and its 2013 sequel Doctor Sleep says the best writers hook their readers with voice, not just action.
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By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

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Doug McLean

Stephen King brings us two new novels in 2013 -- one on shelves already, and the other forthcoming. In June, Joyland was published by Hard Case Crime, an imprint showcasing classic and contemporary crime writers in paperback editions dressed up like vintage pulps: Stylized covers feature ominous taglines, brooding private dicks, and draped-out femme fatales. Though Joyland's story is haunted by a terrifying killer of young women, the book mostly chronicles the yearning rhythms of one adolescent summer -- carny talk and plushie toys, boardwalks and broken hearts. In The New York Times, Walter Kirn aptly compared the book to a fair ride -- it's brief, thrilling, and sweetly quaint.

King's second book, Doctor Sleep, which will be published in September by Scribner, is everything Joyland isn't. On his website, the author calls it a "return to balls-to-the-wall, keep-the-lights-on horror." This long-awaited sequel to 1977's The Shining revisits traumatized child psychic Danny Torrance -- he goes by Dan, now -- all grown up and still struggling to understand his frightening gift. "It's a good book, a scary book, but I wonder if some people won't like it as much as the original," King told me. That book's pre-Kubrick readers are 35 years older now. "I can hear everyone saying, 'That wasn't so scary. The first one really scared me," he said. "Well, that's because you read the first one when you were 13 fuckin' years old, hiding under the covers with a flashlight!"

When I asked him to share a favorite passage for this series, King couldn't choose between two favorites; both, we noticed, were first sentences. So, he analyzed both his choices as part of a broader discussion about opening lines -- a topic not addressed at length in his memoir-as-craft-manual, On Writing. King paid tribute to Douglas Fairbairn and James M. Cain, looked back on favorite intros he's written, and explained how he approaches a book's first moments. Stephen King spoke to me by phone from his home in Maine.


Stephen King: There are all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good opening line. It's tricky thing, and tough to talk about because I don't think conceptually while I work on a first draft -- I just write. To get scientific about it is a little like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar.

But there's one thing I'm sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.

How can a writer extend an appealing invitation -- one that's difficult, even, to refuse?

We've all heard the advice writing teachers give: Open a book in the middle of a dramatic or compelling situation, because right away you engage the reader's interest. This is what we call a "hook," and it's true, to a point. This sentence from James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice certainly plunges you into a specific time and place, just as something is happening:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

Suddenly, you're right inside the story -- the speaker takes a lift on a hay truck and gets found out. But Cain pulls off so much more than a loaded setting -- and the best writers do. This sentence tells you more than you think it tells you. Nobody's riding on the hay truck because they bought a ticket. He's a basically a drifter, someone on the outskirts, someone who's going to steal and filch to get by. So you know a lot about him from the beginning, more than maybe registers in your conscious mind, and you start to get curious.

This opening accomplishes something else: It's a quick introduction to the writer's style, another thing good first sentences tend to do. In "They threw me off the hay truck about noon," we can see right away that we're not going to indulge in a lot of foofaraw. There's not going to be much floridity in the language, no persiflage. The narrative vehicle is simple, lean (not to mention that the book you're holding is just 128 pages long). What a beautiful thing -- fast, clean, and deadly, like a bullet. We're intrigued by the promise that we're just going to zoom.

Of course, it's a little do-or-die here for the writer. A really bad first line can convince me not to buy a book -- because, god, I've got plenty of books already -- and an unappealing style in the first moments is reason enough to scurry off. I'll never forget the botched opening lines of A. E. Van Vogt -- a German science fiction writer, long dead, who liked to effuse a little bit. His book Slan was actually the basis of the Alien films -- they basically stole them to do that, and ended up paying his estate some money -- but he was just a terrible, terrible writer. His short story, "Black Destroyer," begins:

On and on, Coeurl prowled!

You read that, and you think -- my god! Can I really put up with even five more pages of this? It's just panting!

So an intriguing context is important, and so is style. But for me, a good opening sentence really begins with voice. You hear people talk about "voice" a lot, when I think they really just mean "style." Voice is more than that. People come to books looking for something. But they don't come for the story, or even for the characters. They certainly don't come for the genre. I think readers come for the voice.

A novel's voice is something like a singer's -- think of singers like Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, who have no musical training but are instantly recognizable. When people pick up a Rolling Stones record, it's because they want access to that distinctive quality. They know that voice, they love that voice, and something in them connects profoundly with it. Well, it's the same way with books. Anyone who's read a lot of John Sanford, for example, knows that wry, sarcastic amusing voice that's his and his alone. Or Elmore Leonard -- my god, his writing is like a fingerprint. You'd recognize him anywhere. An appealing voice achieves an intimate connection -- a bond much stronger than the kind forged, intellectually, through crafted writing.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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