Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Best Worst Story? An Ongoing TBOE Investigation, 2:

This is part 2 of my ongoing look at how to identify terrible stories, and choose the best of those all-time terrible stories. Part 1 is here.

I have to say something to start this post, because I was this close to starting this post with a quote.

Starting any piece of writing with a quote is, of course, one of the worst ways to start a piece of writing. There are three things I think really mark the low point of writing:

1. Starting your book/essay/tweet with a quote, and
2. Starting your book, etc., with a dictionary definition, and
3. Making what you're writing an "open letter."

Plus! Special Bonus Low Point Of Writing!

4. Bill Simmons.*
*Those of you who thought I was going to say "Rachel In The OC," go to the back of the class. What Rachel in the OC does is not writing. She just reprints old "I Love Lucy" scripts with the word "snark" surgically injected.** **Those of you who thought I was going to say "Diablo Cody" forgot that her career is over.
Anyway, I was going to, for a moment, start this post with this line:

Like most events in my life, this story begins in a bar.

That's the opening line of "Back To Life," the story that prompted this whole investigation, a story that the author said himself was a terrible story. Whether that is the case remains to be seen and judged by me, the man whose opinions are righter than yours. (It's true! It says so right on the blog header, and if it's on the internet, it must be true.)

I don't, as a general rule, put much stock in opening lines -- not in the good way. An opening line can, as I began this post by pointing out, kill a story, but I don't think an opening line of a book can make a story.

Think about it: people talk about opening lines of stories as being great, or terrible. If you google "best opening lines of books," you'll find list after list after list of great opening lines -- the 100 best, the 25 best, the 20 best, the best ones to grab young adult readers according to NPR, and this Goodreads poll that manages to combine great opening lines with boogers:

Sometimes the first line of a book just grabs you by the nostrils and drags your fool head into its pages, preventing escape in any way, shape or form. Which of these opening lines has its phalanges most firmly planted in your nasal cavities?

Yes, what I look for in a book is a good sinus-clearing beginning.

The top vote-getter on that poll right now is:

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
which is from a book I've never heard of, I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith, and that, in fact, appears to be the rare opening line that really is good: it made me want to read the next line, because as I read that one I thought "who writes sitting in a kitchen sink? What's going on there?"

But it's also not so good an opening line, because, as I clicked on the link my mind filled with reasons why someone might be writing in the kitchen sink: Was this some sort of out-of-body experience? Was the protagonist killed and her (I automatically assumed it was a woman) body parts in the sink? Was it from the point of view of a baby? What was going on?

But, the reality was then disappointing: The story turns out to be of a girl whose family lives in a castle and she's trying to be a writer, according to its Goodreads profile, and the remainder of the first paragraph goes on to read:

That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog's blanket, and the tea-cosy.

Had that been included in the rest of the "opening line," I would never have gone on to check out the book, because I would instantly have realized that I Capture The Castle had to do with tea-cosys (cosies?) and not disembodied narrators speaking from a garbage disposal.

So why is that the number one choice of Goodreads voters, it's 5.7% of the vote narrowly edging out

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

From Pride & Prejudice? And how do any of those rate above the third-place bronze medal winner:

"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."

From The Voyage of the Dawn Treader?

That latter is an excellent line, by the way -- as is Jane Austen's quote (which works even without zombies) and many of the other lines on that list are good lines, too, which is to be expected from good writers; good writers come up with good lines.

But what makes them great? The Castle opening line tells you nothing about the book itself. Jane Austen's gives you an idea exactly what that book's going to be talking about, while Dawn Treader's introduces the main character but does not tell you that he's going to be sailing off the edge of the world with a talking mouse and some one-footed gnomes.***
***Spoiler Alert!
Those are the best opening lines according to people on Goodreads, of course. (I think that I am on Goodreads but I'm not sure. When I tried to log in, none of my passwords or IDs worked. The fantastic growth of sign-ins, PINs, log-ins, verifications, IDs, and everything else has left me with no way, ever, to recall what ID or PIN or password I'm using, so if my browser doesn't automatically sign me in, I can't get on the site.)

Then there's the American Book Review list -- the list that author Michael Offutt might call written by industry professionals and therefore out of touch with dung. The ABR is written by professors at someplace called the "University of Houston-Victoria," which I don't think is a place at all, and says that it specializes in:

reviews of frequently neglected published works of fiction, poetry, and literary and cultural criticism from small, regional, university, ethnic, avant-garde, and women's presses. For nearly thirty years, ABR has been a staple of the literary world.

The literary world of avant-garde neglected women's poetry. That is a very small world, indeed.

ABR's top 100 best opening lines begin with

Call me Ishmael,

from Moby-Dick, which they at least titled correctly; many people forget the hyphen in that name, just as they do in Spider-Man, and just as they forget that Batman is actually called "The Batman."

The first line of the first story featuring The Batman, by the way, is:

Calm yourself, my boy, and tell me all about it.

Which isn't such a bad opener, if you think about it.

Interestingly, ABR picks Jane Austen's Pride opener as number two, also, so there you go: Jane Austen is a solid silver medalist when it comes to writing. Whether that's sexism or rabid anti-Britite-ism at play is up to you to decide.

Moby-Dick's opening line is terrible, but that's because Moby-Dick, the book, is terrible. It's god-awful, nearly unreadable: ponderous and boring and overly laden with symbolism. Moby-Dick would be the worst book ever written, except it's not, for two compelling reasons:

1. Anna Karenina was written, and
2. Anna Karenina is the worst book ever written.*4

*4. Um. I think I just gave away the conclusion of this series. Unless I change my mind...
So there's the first thing to worry about opening lines in picking The Best Worst Book: Does the opening line work? And what does that mean?

This series, after all, isn't about best opening lines. It's about Worst Books, and so to look at lines that don't work, we could look at that I Capture The Castle opener - -which gives a misleading impression of the rest of the story, if you have an overactive, sci-fi-y imagination like I do. Or we could google the worst opening lines of books.*5

*5 If you're a sharp-eyed reader, you've noted that I talk about
opening lines of books, not novels. Everyone else talks about opening lines of novels, but why should it be limited to that? Should nonfiction not have a compelling opening line? Are the opening lines of movies not worth of consideration? What about songs? Consider these opening lines:

a. "Fiddle-dee-dee. War, war, war."
b. "The lunatic is on the grass."
c. "So long, Pop! I'm off to check my tiger trap."

Those are the opening lines from, respectively, Gone With The Wind, the movie; the song Brain Damage/Eclipse by Pink Floyd, and Calvin & Hobbes, the comic strip:

and each of them might be considered equally compelling except that nobody bothers to worry about opening lines for things that aren't novels, the idea being, I think, that with everything else, there's something else to grab you. In nonfiction, you can have a terrible opening line (as Nothing Like It In The World, by Stephen Ambrose does) because you already know what the book is about. In comics and movies you can have good or terrible opening lines and nobody cares because there's artwork and opening shots and credits and things. One could argue that the opening shot of a movie is more important than the first thing said, but then, aren't those things also true of novels? There is the cover art and the back-page blurb and the reviews, and the general idea of the subject matter, all adding up to more than the opening line.i

: Bad opening lines. Let's google them, and let's ignore the Edward Bulwer-Lytton contest for bad opening lines, as those lines are for books that don't exist, and, as I pointed out in the first installment, Bulwer-Lytton (whose "It was a dark and stormy night" inspired the contest) was actually a wildly successful writer in his day -- far more so than Melville, who gets all the acclaim undeservedly.

That's not actually the whole line, though. The whole first line is this:

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

Which I find kind of compelling. Of course, I like wildly-long sentences that diverge off on different pathways of the mind, expanding out in an almost-explosive way like tiny mental fireworks, or perhaps a phalanx of miniature sprites flitting out to to gather from different pockets of imagination a bevy of individual notions, which they will then bring back back home to roost in the original idea of a complete narrative thought.*5.

*5 I'm awesome.
The Bulwer-Lytton contest people have started their own effort to identify terrible opening lines, and they've gone with this one:

"She wore a dress the same color as her eyes her father brought her from San Francisco."

That really is wildly bad. Or wildly good, if you don't care about the rules of grammar, which I don't, really. Or wildly even better, if you think for a moment that perhaps the protagonist's father really did buy her some eyes in San Francisco; having now thought of that interpretation, you (like me) might be tempted to go read the story... but don't. The line is from Danielle Steel's Star and the odds of there being eyeball transplants in that story seem rather small. Read Philip K. Dick, instead.*6

*6 "A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard" is the first line in Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, although I would postulate that the real first line is that title -- that'll hook you sci-fi-ers in faster than Rick Deckard's mood clock radio. Can one hit snooze on a mood?
What have we learned? That opening lines only matter, so far as the literati and readers are concerned, for novels, and that good opening lines tend to be associated with good books. Which is to say, if you liked the book, you probably liked the opening line... because you liked the book. Most of those bad-first-lines were from books the people didn't like, and some of them I found to be rather entertaining:

"Anthony Rowley didn't look like a self-confessed sadistic rapist."

That's from an author named Sarah Lovett, in her book, Acquired Motives, and it's criticized on that site I linked to earlier, but why? It kind of gives a Dexter-y feel to the book, right away, good if you like Dexter*7

*7. I don't. But Dexter was a series of books before it was a series of TV shows, the very first line of which, ever, was a single word: Moon. (It goes on to read: "Glorious moon. Full, fat, reddish moon, the night as light as day, the moonlight flooding down across the land and bringing joy, joy, joy." That's a bad opening, if you ask me. It sounds like a seventh-grader's poetry written in a notebook that had a unicorn on the cover but which was scribbled over the by owner who suddenly felt as though the unicorn was too little-kiddish even though she still really likes unicorns. Also, it isn't likely with a red moon that the night is as light as day.
The thing about an opening line, then, is it's a pickup line. It's the first thing, really, the writer says to you after he or she walked across the bar. You saw the clothing and the hair and the nervous smile (or, alternately, the high-five to his bros and the swagger) and then you waited, expectantly, until he or she opened up and said something like

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost:—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.

That's from Tristram Shandy, number 19 on the ABR list of best opening lines, and how does that get considered better than Bulwer-Lytton?

(ABR, interestingly, ranks Bulwer-Lytton's stormy night just three places below that, at 22.)

As a pickup line, the opening line can shoot you down -- but it can't win the day. If it's terrifically bad, and how many opening lines really are, it'll kill the book. But if it's mediocre, or great, or nothing much yet because it's just the first 1-40 words out of about 100,000 or more, it'll get up- or down-graded based on the rest of the book. If you like the book, then even a mundane opening line:

It was love at first sight.

can be elevated by a great book. That line, that last one, was from Catch-22, and it's not much of a line, in itself. If Heller came up to you in a bar and said he loved you at first sight, you'd probably not listen to him much further -- but if, at the end of a long and fruitful life with Heller you'd probably look back and said "That's right, he began by saying It was love at first sight, that was kind of sweet" and upgrade the line after the fact.

The fact is, by the time you get to the opening line, you've already got an idea what's going on here and you're not going to stop reading the book if the line is awful. You probably won't even notice the line being awful until you later think about it, the way people pick up on plot points that don't make sense*8

*8 Like Commissioner Gordon's fake death in The Dark Knight, which STILL doesn't make any sense but you didn't notice it in the movie because you didn't have time to think.

in movies only after the fact.

From that perspective, Rogue's opening line:

Like most events in my life, this story begins in a bar.

Is pretty effective. Which means Rogue's book isn't really in the running for best worst book ever... unless I change my mind.

NEXT UP: What I should've done this time: Titles!


Rogue Mutt said...

There aren't many opening lines I can actually remember, not even to my own stories! Of course with my own stories it's sometimes because I change the opening lines a few times before I'm done and then forget which one I went with. Other books I just don't care unless I suppose it were really brilliant or really terrible, but then I'm not one of those people who stops reading a book if it doesn't "hook" him in 5 pages. That just seems wasteful to me.

Briane P said...

I'll usually give a book about 70 pages, at least. I gave up on "Dragon Tattoo" about 100 pages in, maybe, and "The Name Of The Rose" about the same. If it doesn't grab me by then, I'm done. Life is too short to read a crappy book.

Stephen Hayes said...

Moby Dick is really one of the worst books ever written. I understand that when it was first published in London the publisher mistakenly omitted the last fifty pages... and no one noticed.

As for this first line business: I've changed the opening line to the novel I'm polishing twenty times and I'm still not happy with it.

Andrew Leon said...

"It was a dark and stormy night" is a great opening line; we just can't tell because it's so "done" at this point. It's become cliche. But it only became cliche -because- it was great.

I have to disagree with you about Moby. Incredible book. The only book I've ever read that I felt compelled to take notes on as I read it. And that wasn't for school; I read it because I wanted to.

Maybe that says something about me; I don't know.

And on that line about the dress and the eyes... that was the first thing I thought of, too. That's such a cool idea, though, buying someone a pair of eyes while on a business trip. You should write that story (because I'm too backed up to do it).