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!