The First Sentence Is a Handshake

According to science fiction writer William Gibson, a book's opening should be an inviting enigma to the reader—and a motivational benchmark for the writer.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

What happens in the first moments of a book? For William Gibson, author of The Peripheral, a kind of invitation is extended—and readers will or won’t feel what he calls “the click.” But it’s not just about connecting with an audience. In a conversation for this series, Gibson explained how first sentences invite the writer, too: they contain a blueprint for the book that will be written.

If Gibson is one of the most respected living authors of science fiction, it’s in part because of the spooky prescience of his imagined futures. His classic first book Neuromancer (1984), which debuted the same year as the MacIntosh computer, glimpsed the World Wide Web a decade before its advent and famously coined the term “cyberspace.” In our interview, he explained why forcing the reader to grapple with new technological vocabularies—even in a first sentence—is a central aspect of his work.

Set in the near future, The Peripheral centers on a gamer named Flynn, who discovers that the virtual worlds she beta-tests may be more than fantasy. The novel mines the anxieties that haunt 2014’s hyperconnected masses, imagining what drones, 3D printing, and virtual reality will look like decades down the line. Gibson takes us towards a world shaped by today’s nascent technologies, exploring how the encroachment of technology onto—and into—our bodies may change what it means to be human.

William Gibson is author of ten other novels—most recently, Zero History and Spook Country. His essay for this series was supplemented with a phone interview. He spoke to me from his home in Vancouver.

William Gibson: Writing the first sentence of a novel, for me, is something like filing, from a blank of metal, the key for a lock that doesn’t yet exist, in a door that doesn’t yet exist, set into a wall … An impossible thing, yet I find it must be done, or at least approximately done, else nothing will follow. The white wall (once of paper, now of pixels) will only open to the right key, or at least something approximating it, as I tend to keep filing, endlessly, through the ensuing composition.

If I were to install a key-logger on my computer, then later watch, fast-forward, as that first line gradually, somehow, finds itself, it would remind me of medieval palimpsests, the magic of writing repeatedly over writing, though in my case never quite obliterating the original, that first stroke that managed, however impossibly, to break the white wall.

I know that not all writers go about it that way, but some do, and I’ve never found that I had any choice in the matter. My first adult attempt at prose fiction, composed secretly over several months, was a single sentence, straining for what I imagined was a tone of sere import, I hoped in the manner of J.G. Ballard. I actually did complete it, that opening line, and have never quite been able to forget it. (“Seated each afternoon in the darkened screening room, Bannerman came to regard the targeted numerals of the Academy leader as hypnagogic sigils preceding the dream-state of film.” Ahem.) I knew then, somehow, that that was it, my opening line, yet nothing opened. I think it may actually been the entire story, such as that was, in which case I suppose it might be considered to have been a successful attempt.

I hope it’s not that obvious, how long I labor over an opening line, but then I find it impossible to be certain how long Elmore Leonard, starting Get Shorty, labored over “When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio’s on South Collins and had his leather jacket ripped off.” As plainly quotidian as that might at first seem, he’s got it all going on there, damn, and if I were able to write the equivalent, it would take me a good long time. He was a genius at removing every functionally expendable bit of a sentence, right down to punctuation marks, and in my experience that’s slow work.

As a new writer of fiction, I imagined that my fussing over first lines (and titles, which at first I felt I needed to even attempt a first line) was about the need to simply have something, anything: any one acceptable part of an unwritten whole. Today, it never really having gotten any easier, I suspect it’s more organic than that. If writing is like the story of the fiddle-maker, who said that he started with a piece of wood and then removed everything that wasn’t a fiddle, the writer is simultaneously charged with having to generate, like ectoplasm, the block of wood. The first line, to very clumsily mix metaphors, is somehow the block of wood in fractal form. The first line must convince me that it somehow embodies the entire unwritten text. Which is a tall order, virtually an impossible one, yet somehow, so far, I have eventually managed to do it. Once that first line succeeds in selling me on the worthiness of some totality that in no way, at that point, actually exists, I can continue.

The Peripheral began somewhat differently, actually. I couldn’t get the first line for a long time. This might sound crazy, but initially all I had was the image of a young woman walking down a hill somewhere in the rural United States towards running water. I don’t know why. I didn’t know who she was, what year it was, or where she thought she was going. I only had a sense of the landscape—rural, and somewhat impoverished.

I had a long opening paragraph. Sometimes, over the course of two years, it would split into two or three paragraphs, or merge again into a longer chunk. As I toyed with it, a couple of different sentences from that first section that would, by turns, rotate into first place.

Eventually, I did finally settle on the sentence that finally wound up at the very top of the text—though it mutated in tiny ways almost daily. Not according to any conscious ideas I might have had about it—just according to my weird process of writing and rewriting.

In retrospect, I think I was looking for the voice of the book. I believe that: A book is going to have a voice and I have to find it.

In the case of this book, I found that voice in what became its first sentence:

They didn’t think Flynne’s brother had PTSD, but that sometimes the haptics glitched him.

When the reader first encounters this, it’s weird, and not entirely translatable. Yet it helps situate us in place. The phrasing of it is not formal English, not even formal American English. It’s colloquial American. It places this character you yet haven’t met in an American tradition. (The first sentence of Huckleberry Finn does something similar, though for its day it did something infinitely more radical than what I’m doing here.)

The Peripheral has two point-of-view characters—and so the book speaks in two different voices. When you compare the novel’s first sentence with the opening sentence from the second chapter, which is the top of the other point-of-view-character’s thread, you’re suddenly in a different kind of language.

Netherton woke to Rainey’s sigil, pulsing behind his lids at the rate of a resting heartbeat.

It’s British, or at least faux-British and slightly neo-Victorian, in spite of the hallucinatory raciness of everything else that’s going on.

Both sentences have something in common: they both contain words that will not be familiar to the first-time reader. Someone reading the book for the first time will not know what “haptics” are, or what a “sigil” is, or what it means to “glitch” someone—these usages are part of the idiosyncratic lexicon of this particular book. To understand these words, then—and better parse the sentences that contain them—you have to keep reading.

I assume, as a reader myself, that something like this either connects or doesn’t, in that moment in a bookshop in which I open a book and glance at an opening line. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen”: I would have bought that instantly, though I never had to, as Orwell’s 1984 was canon. Jack Womack’s Random Acts of Senseless Violence caused me to hear the click as well: “Mamma says mine is a night mind.” As a writer, of course, I hope readers will hear the click on opening my book, but it’s much more important for me to hear it, in fact essential.

From the shelf beside me as I write this, three first lines wherein I heard the click, however variously:

“There is no greater human hazard than a defeated Irishman abroad.” – Not Quite Dead, John MacLachlan Gray

“And so let us beginne; and, as the Fabrick takes its Shape in front of you, always keep the Structure intirely in Mind as you inscribe it.” – Hawksmoor, Peter Ackroyd

“to wound the autumnal city.” – Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany

Each of these sentences confronts us with a new grammar, words arranged in a way we can’t yet understand. Yet this kind of intentional withholding that can be thrilling to encounter. As a reader, one of my greatest pleasures is being dropped into something that’s complex and carefully built. Since I haven’t got a clue what’s going on, I immediately start trying to figure out what the hell is going on. It’s similar to the pleasure of the whodunit, but it’s really more the pleasure of what the fuck?

It is now second nature to me to plunge the reader into the middle of an unfamiliar world, with its unfamiliar language, and let them figure things out. But I must have thought about it in the early eighties when I was writing my first short stories, developing the toolkit that I’d later use. I taught myself to do this through trial and error, and by thinking the stuff I most liked to read. I loved books that employed a kind of withholding, novels that earned the kind of patience they required. That quality seemed to be an important aspect of my own pleasure in the text.

Of course, there are some kinds of ambiguity you want to avoid. In my mid-teens, I was very frustrated by what I saw as the low imaginative resolution of the science fiction I was reading. There were wonderful writers of course, but I encountered a lot of lazy visualization. I can still remember being outraged by a story which opened with someone looking out the porthole of something, you didn’t know what, and seeing a figure in silver boots sprawled by an airplane. Those “silver boots” totally offended me. Are they lamé? Are they articulated sterling? What the hell am I supposed to be seeing? It was never explained, and I took that to mean that the author neither knew nor gave a shit. Some kind of work had not been done.

Productive ambiguity is not the same as lazy writing. But what’s the proper balance of mystery and clarity? This tension is result of a problem central to science fiction: we’re applying hundred-year-old techniques of literary naturalism to imagined futures. This, I think, has been a huge part of what I’ve wanted to do, but it poses certain challenges. As a writer, you want to describe things so that they speak for themselves. But when you’re writing about the future, some objects, ideas, and sensations may be unfamiliar to the reader no matter how well you describe them, because they’re not real.

My instinct throughout The Peripheral was to play strict science fiction golf, which means to me avoiding the clumsy integration of exposition or contextual information, even when dealing with terms and technologies the reader won’t recognize (because they don’t exist). It’s important to avoid what science fiction writers sometimes call the “As you know, Bob,” paragraph, in which you do this big info dump. There’s pleasure in working it out. Besides, brief, understated descriptions tend to better serve the lens of character.  Real people don’t think of things in quite so many adverbs, or adjectives. And then I like to think that withholding information also rewards readers who will go back and re-read the whole thing. All of those little enigmas play differently the second time through.

Of course, this approach doesn’t work for everyone. I’ve been doing what no writer should ever do, reading the user reviews of my new book on the Amazon site. Sometimes, I’ll hit on one that says something like, “What a pain in the ass! There’s all this slang, and I’m expected to know what it means?” It’s not going to work for some people. But, a novel can’t be anything very good in my opinion and simultaneously be totally available to everyone.

Playing by the rules of strict sci-fi golf is a risk, though, one that anyone writing thoroughly-imagined speculative fiction—Margaret Atwood, say—runs. Sophisticated science fiction requires a sort of cultural super-structure of reading skill. We forget as readers of longform fiction that at one time we didn’t know how to do that—we had to acquire the skill through cultural education. It’s the same with good sci-fi, which generally requires a sort of super-structure of cultural experience to make it pleasurably accessible. As a reader, I want to encounter rigorously-imagined literature—but anyone working this way risks losing of losing a portion of their perspective audience.

I’ve sometimes suspected myself of writing, however unconsciously, opening lines that very possibly would put off (“warn off” might be the kinder way to put) readers who might be less likely to enjoy the rest of the book. Indeed, I suspect I’ve sometimes written entire opening chapters that way, though today I make some conscious effort not to.

In any case, the first sentence is the handshake, on either side of the writer-reader divide. The reader shakes hands with the writer. The writer has already had to shake hands with the unknown. Assuming both have heard the click, we’ve got it going on.