I have to write a short story for Second Helpings, an anthology to be released later this year from Second Wind Publishing, and I’m trying to come up with a witty or evocative first line, something that will immediately catapult me into a story, but all I can think of is Billy Crystal in Throw Mama From the Train. I remember watching him struggle for the perfect first line, the perfect word until I wanted to scream “Skip the first line! Start anywhere! Or use a thesaurus.” But that was before I started to write, and now I find myself doing the same thing.
Odd that first lines are so important, yet few set the mood or do anything else they’re supposed to. And fewer still are memorable. Probably the best known line is “It was a dark and stormy night,” but it’s also considered to be the worst first line in history, mostly because of what comes after the initial phrase. The entire first sentence by Edward Bulwer-Lytton for his novel Paul Clifford is: 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. That sure is an eyeful!
As it turns out, Bulwer-Lytton was not the first to use “It was a dark and stormy night.” Washington Irving used the phrase twenty years earlier on page 282 of The History of New York.
Still, memorable or not, plagiarism or not, I stole the line for a short story I wrote for Murder in the Wind, a previous Second Wind anthology. Here’s how my story “The Stygian Night” began:
It was a dark and stormy night.
Silas Slovotsky leaned back in his chair and studied the words he’d typed into his computer.
He grinned. Perfect. The very words he needed to set the scene. And they had the added benefit of being true. It was a dark and stormy night. Except for his porch light, of course. And the thunder and lightning—
He leaned forward and peered at the computer screen. Did the sentence seem a bit trite? Maybe he needed to spiffy it up. He opened his thesaurus to the word “dark” and ran a finger down the page. “Stygian”. That might work.
He cleared his computer screen and typed: It was a stygian night.
Nope. Didn’t have the euphoniousness of the original sentence. Perhaps if he reread what he’d already written he could figure out how to proceed.
He printed out the manuscript he’d been working on for the past four months and read the single page. Dark as Night by Jack Kemp.
A thrill ran up his spine. He could see it on the shelf in the bookstore. Kemp, King, Koontz. He’d chosen his pseudonym specifically so the reviewers could call them the unhallowed trinity. And he deserved the accolade.
A knock on the door startled him out of his dream.
Who could that be? His friends—all two of them—knew he didn’t like to be disturbed when he was writing.
I loved that story. So out of character for me! And I loved my story for the latest anthology. Apparently, although I dig in my heels and scream (silently), “I don’t wanna!” I do enjoy my short stories.
How about this for a first line? As the ax descended toward her head, the young mother struggled in vain to free her hands from the nylon rope. It might work if I took out “in vain” because headless characters are hard to write about, but come to think of it, Washington Irving managed to do it. He wrote about a headless horseman.
But this is supposed to be a holiday story. Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, New Years. And it has to involve food because a recipe will accompany each story. It seems as if I am far from a festive mood — all I can think of is poisoned cookies. Maybe someone left poisoned cookies for Santa? Or gave them to a neighbor who always went overboard with the Christmas lights, making it impossible to sleep? Or couldn’t bear one more holiday dinner with her overbearing brother-in-law?
Perhaps not, but still . . . murder, mayhem, and family get-togethers somehow seem to go together.
What about one of these for a first line? Now is the winter of our discontent, or It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Maybe for another Silas Slovotsky story?
Hey! Why should I have all the fun? You can write your own holiday story (any genre) and maybe you will be published in the same anthology. Rules for the contest are here: Invitation to Submit an Entry to Our Short Story Contest.