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How a great “voice” can make an opening line

In Joe Fassler’s recent interview with Stephen King in “The Atlantic” we learn what the bestselling author thinks a first line in a novel should accomplish. Besides establishing time and space, and hooking the reader with compelling action, an opening line should, most importantly, establish voice.

We’ve heard the term “voice” before but what is it exactly? King describes it as follows:

“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.”

When I think of some of my favorite books like “The Lovely Bones” or “The Secret Life of Bees,” I remember it was the voice that drew me in.

The Lovely Bones” first line: “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”

Wow. Just wow. The first line is matter-of-fact and succinct yet unusually stated. And she’s telling the story of her own murder? I’m hooked.

The Secret Life of Bees” opening line: “At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin.”

A few lines later we learn the narrator is fourteen. Just from this first line I can tell she feels things deeply, she investigates and ponders. This is a character I want to get to know better.

How important is getting just the right first line for King?

When I’m starting a book, I compose in bed before I go to sleep. I will lie there in the dark and think. I’ll try to write a paragraph. An opening paragraph. And over a period of weeks and months and even years, I’ll word and reword it until I’m happy with what I’ve got. If I can get that first paragraph right, I’ll know I can do the book.

Read the full article to learn some of King’s favorite first lines, including the first line to his upcoming book “Doctor Sleep,” a sequel to “The Shining.”

What are some of your favorite first lines?

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