Notes on Craft | Jonathan Lee | Granta

Notes on Craft

Jonathan Lee

The author of The Great Mistake discusses the importance of opening lines.

How to Start a Novel

I’m an obsessive collector of other people’s opening lines. With my phone I take photos of the good and the bad. When I find one I really like, I scribble the writer’s first sentence down in one of those Moleskine notebooks people always give me for Christmas. Translated into my handwriting, the line becomes less legible, but I can see more clearly how it works.

The first sentence of a novel is an entryway. An open door. But how many doors have you seen in your life that you’ve actually wanted to walk through? It takes energy and trust to cross a threshold. You may have to take your shoes off. Stop fidgeting with your phone. Prepare. Be alert. Some clumsy fool with a baseball bat could be waiting on the other side, ready to clobber you to death with his unsubtle story.

Often the visitor turns around and walks away; the first line is frequently the only line a reader reads. If that opening sentence tries too hard, or holds no special friction, the book slips from its holder’s hands – back onto the table, or the shelf, ready to be replaced with a magazine, or a snack, or a screaming child. Knowing this fact makes an opening sentence extremely difficult to write. It is like the shirt you will wear to the most important first date of your life – except the date could be with anyone, and you have no way of guessing at their taste, and you have to choose between all the imaginable shirts on earth.

The first sentence of my novel The Great Mistake changed its clothing often. While procrastinating, I found it instructive to try out the opening lines of some favorite books that dealt with a similar place (New York), time period (nineteenth and early twentieth century), or ideas (fate, death and the creation of public space).

Here is the first sentence of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime: ‘In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York.’

I like how that capitalized ‘F’ at the start of ‘Father’ asks for attention – but in a modest way. The manner of a humble son? A mystery is seeded in the novel’s first line merely by capitalizing one character. That’s a canny investment – like building your own house in New York in 1902. And that repetition of ‘New’ is the first hint of a rhythm, is it? A prose that will proceed by emphasis and repetition, like the jazz that is the novel’s subject and its soundtrack. Starting the book with building a house at the crest of a hill also seems notable. It signals this writer’s ambition. We don’t yet know if the book’s structure will collapse – but its entryway inspires confidence. We step inside.

The opening line of Toni Morrison’s Beloved is so brilliant you might miss it: ‘124 was spiteful.’

This opening line holds a whole life. Precise yet mysterious, open to a million meanings. But also specific, and brutally abbreviated. Numbers can be spiteful, as every writer who has sat in the back of a mathematics class knows. But ‘124’ might also be the number by which a convict is identified? Or the address of a house? A haunted house? A house haunted by the absence of a number ‘3’? Of the protagonist’s four children, we’ll soon discover the third is no longer alive. A ghost rightly spiteful. Has so much ever been packed into so few words?

A ghost also presides over the first line of Steven Millhauser’s Pulitzer Prize-winning (yet sadly under-read) novel Martin Dressler: ‘There once lived a man named Martin Dressler, a shopkeeper’s son, who rose from modest beginnings to a height of dreamlike good fortune.’

I love how this first sentence is its own ‘modest beginning’, carrying forth a fairytale air. The way it encapsulates, as many of the best opening sentences do, the whole story that is to follow: one man’s unlikely rise to fame and fortune, followed by a less fortunate full stop. Like a newspaper headline, Millhauser’s first sentence puts the whole narrative in your head, then invites you to read the longer version underneath. But not everyone will find time.

As you may be starting to notice, writers often seem to build a first sentence around a building. It doesn’t take Freud to work out why. Construction is on the author’s mind. The writer is building a world. Inviting you into a home. And they are probably sitting in their own real-life home while they do this. Hoping you buy enough copies of their book for them to stay there.

James Baldwin, at the start of Giovanni’s Room: ‘I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.’ (I love how this sentence, hinging on that one comma after the word ‘falls’, plummets us into fear – which is, to a ‘great’ extent, the ‘terrible’ fear of falling in love.)

And if the first sentence of a novel doesn’t let us into a house, it often at least gives us access to its grounds. Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop starts on grass: ‘One summer in the year 1848, three Cardinals and a missionary Bishop from America were dining together in the gardens of a villa in the Sabine hills, overlooking Rome.’ (Three Cardinals and a missionary Bishop! I love how this opening line sets the scene using the structure of a joke. A joke as cruel and absurd as death itself.)

In my reading of first lines, I’ve found that through a tense little shift in tenses, or a single careful clause, some openings are able to kill off their protagonists before we really meet them. For some reason, I like this. My favorite first sentences are death sentences.

Here begins Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold: ‘On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on.’

Poor Santiago isn’t given a chance! His death is foretold in the very first part of the very first sentence. But sometimes it happens even earlier than that. In Paul Murray’s wonderful Skippy Dies, Skippy dies on the front cover. The book’s central idea may be about taking life’s chances when you can. Or it might be about the dangers of entering a donut-eating competition.

A lot can be crammed into the mouth of an opening line. Starting the life of a novel can require a lot of attempts and involve a lot of mistakes. Which may be one explanation for why, in the end, the first line of my own novel, The Great Mistake, has become this:

‘The last attempt on the life of Andrew Haswell Green took place on Park Avenue in 1903.’

It is an open door through which you might glimpse the ghosts of many books I’ve loved.


Image © Shu Wu

Jonathan Lee

Jonathan Lee is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel High Dive, Joy and Who is Mr Satoshi?. He has been shortlisted for the Edinburgh Festival First Book Award the Desmond Elliott Prize for literature, and longlisted for the Sunday Times Short Story Award.

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