First Impressions: The merits of a good opening line
If I asked you to recite the first line of your favourite poem, could you?
How about your favourite novel? Favourite movie?
Now, if I asked you to recite any memorable line from a poem, novel, commercial, TV show, movie, or whatever – you’d probably pull something out of your head fairly quickly.
So that begs the question: if an opening line isn’t memorable…how important is it?
I had been wanting to write about opening lines for awhile now, so I need to thank fellow blogger and children’s poet Ed DeCaria for getting me to finally write it. Ed’s blog post about the first lines of children’s poems got me pondering whether or not it’s a sin that I barely remember the opening lines of any of my favourite poems or books or movies. I started thinking about the purpose behind a good opening line. And soon I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing I had not invalidated my poetic license by forgetting the great opening lines of poets and authors from Shakespeare to Silverstein.
An opening line doesn’t need to be memorable.
It needs to be engaging.
As radio advertising guru Dan O’Day says: the first line of a commercial is the commercial for the commercial. It’s also the commercial for the poem or novel. In other words, the opening line needs to be interesting enough – or intriguing enough or funny enough or shocking enough – to get the reader or listener to want to keep reading or listening. That first line is advertising the content that follows.
Whether or not an opening line is memorable is irrelevant – as long as it helps make the entire piece that follows memorable. (And in the case of commercials, effective)
Speaking of commercials, I cringe when I hear one begin, “Hi, this Joe What’s-his-face from Wacky Widgets!” Or even worse, an announcer – presumably in his too-perfect and overly-smooth delivery – saying, “And now, Joe What’s-his-face from Wacky Widgets…” Opening lines like these give a listener NO REASON to care about the message, much less a compelling reason to continue listening. They might as well start the commercial, “Hey, I’m a business owner, and this is a commercial! I’m going to try to sell you something…feel free to turn the channel!”
Over the years, I’ve produced a lot of client-voiced spots – still do, too – but they all start with a compelling opening line. Memorable? Maybe not – but they’re compelling, and they get the job done. Here’s one recent example for a local motorcycle shop’s one-day sales event:
Notice I didn’t start off telling the listener who Nate is; I started off with Nate connecting with the listener himself, via a premise most of us can relate to: the typical sale where overpriced vehicles are artificially ‘marked down.’ It’s that first line that has to make you want to keep listening – and if you’re a motorcyclist, chances are you did.
I tell my radio advertising clients all the time that one has to assume the listener doesn’t care. Not to be insulting, but when your commercial comes on the air, it’s viewed as an interruption – and a good copywriter needs to overcome that. Why do you suppose such a big deal is made about Super Bowl commercials? Because advertising agencies don’t want people leaving the living room to get more nachoes while they’re trying to pitch a car manufacturer’s newest model. The first line should attract attention and draw you in…and make you a participant in the story.
Memorable Lines v. Opening Lines
“We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
“An elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent.”
“I am your father!!”
(Be honest…you read that last one in James Earl Jones’ voice, didn’t you?)
The point of all these quotes, obviously, is to show that some of the most memorable lines from some of the greatest works of fiction aren’t necessarily the opening lines. However the piece started, it was enough to hook the reader/viewer and keep him or her interested. The only opening line from these four examples most folks might recall is, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” but even that’s wrong, because it comes from the first Star Wars movie and the line about Luke Skywalker’s father (above) comes from the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back.
That’s why the opening line – the commercial for the commercial – can be both extremely important yet regettably forgettable. Look at it this way: the movie “Titanic” was one of the highest-grossing, most widely-viewed, hugely successful films of all time…
…but do you remember the trailer?
That favourite opening line, again?
Have you been able to come up with anything? Your favourite opening line to a poem, novel, movie, anything?
If you’ve thought of one or two, you’re probably doing better than most. Even opening lines that are well-known (like “Call me Ishmael” from Melville’s Moby Dick or “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities) are often misattributed to other works, by folks who have heard them but may or may not have read the actual novels.
Although opening lines may be extremely important, memorable lines – whether recalled exactly or slightly misquoted – are something else entirely. A good opening line will get the reader/viewer/ listener’s attention – but if the rest of the piece doesn’t live up to the expectations that have been created, nothing about your piece will be memorable.
Except, perhaps, for the wrong reasons.