Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Development of a First Line

When I was in high school the opening line might have read:

“The fat, red-bearded train worker struggled with the wooden boxes, shoving them with his shoulder until the last one was in place.”

Sometime between high school and now, the opening line became:

“Stanlauf pushed the last of the crates into place.”

It’s funny to think about that. He went from a couple of physical descriptors to a name. The name suggests familiarity; you know Stanlauf, while you don’t know the fat, red-bearded train worker. I’ve traded an image (and verbiage) for a suggestion.

In college I definitely would have told you where Stanlauf was. The “train worker” in the high school version hinted. In the contemporary opening line, though? He could be anywhere. The literary sense in me tingles a little. It suggests there will be intrigue. You’ll wonder where he is, as well as what is in those crates and why he’s doing it. Or maybe you won’t asked any of those questions, and I’ll just use the information for fodder later as the story comes together.

Sometime between the me of thirty minutes ago and the me of now, the line reads:

“Stanlauf loaded the last of the crates.”

Omit needless words. Omit needless words.

Though I wonder if “pushed” isn’t more active than “loaded.” “Pushed” is more physically precise; you can load a thing a dozen ways, while pushing is one of them.

But “loaded” suggests something. You don’t load crates into your bedroom. You load them in a few specific loading-friendly places. Like loading docks. “pushed” doesn’t suggest setting as well as “loaded.”

Is it just that way in my head? Will readers pick up on that? The influences either way are weak. The ensuing paragraph will cement things anyway. Have I changed so much as a writer, or have I only shuffled around the traits that don’t matter?

I wonder if these questions will change the writer that I will be in thirty minutes, or in thirty years.


  1. We're constantly evolving beings for sure, John. I prefer the word 'loaded' as it could have a double meaning. I'm not sure if it makes a difference to the reader, but every little bit helps. The reminder of omitting useless words is always a good one.

  2. I'm of the opinion that a story is never finished. Every line can be tweaked and rearranged a thousand times and it might make zero difference to the reader, but we obsess over these details and how they will be interpreted and even after they're posted/printed, we wonder still, would "pushed" have been better?

    A writer's work is never done.

  3. However you phrase it, it will mean something to the reader in at least a subliminal way. And that is the whole tricky part of being a writer, is it not? :)

  4. What a difference between high school and now. Both new lines are almost refreshing in comparison.


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