I was sitting in a seminar on screenwriting last weekend — not that I have any particular aspirations to writing for the screen myself, per se; I just like to hear what folks in other parts of the writing biz are up to — when the gentleman teaching it, the estimable playwright and screenwriter Mark Troy, said something that startled me, a novelist.
“What is the most important line of dialogue in a movie?” he asked rhetorically, as if everyone in the room should already know the answer. I anticipated a trick, but his answer was perfectly straightforward. “The first line the main character says, of course.”
Well, apparently, everyone who has ever given passing consideration to writing a screenplay already knew this, but in my usual conference state — sleep-disenabled, moisture-deprived, and highly caffeinated — this struck me as a pretty profound question to ask about a novel.
Oh, I’ve been in (and taught) more craft classes than I can shake the proverbial stick at where we all obsessed about how important the first SENTENCE is to the success of a novel. In a particularly memorable one, the seminar leader gushed for twenty minutes about the first sentence of A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, in her opinion the greatest first line ever. (And as an editor at a fashion magazine whose most creative work was apparently a positively fawning biography of the then-governor of New Jersey, she let us know in no uncertain terms, we were not to dispute her opinion on this point.)
Now, it IS a remarkably evocative opening sentence, but the third time that she referred to that particular sentence as “the greatest opening sentence in the history of the English language,” I felt compelled to speak up. “You ARE aware that it was originally written in Spanish, right? So you’ve actually been reading a translation.”
She did not speak to me, or call on me, for the rest of the conference.
My original point (and I’m relatively sure I still have one) was that I have literally never heard any discussion in a writerly context about the importance of the first sentence that a novel’s protagonist says OUT LOUD. Perhaps because we only hear our protagonists speak in our minds.
The more I thought about it, the more intrigued I became. It’s pretty easy to see why the first line a character speaks in a movie would set the tone for the character, but often, the protagonist of a novel is introduced lines, paragraphs, or even pages before she speaks. She often THINKS before she speaks, in fact, or feels sensations, or even narrates.
But actually, the first words a protagonist speaks are often the way she is introduced to the other characters to her fictional world, isn’t it? It honestly an important moment, dramatically speaking, and I think it’s worth taking a few minutes to making those first words count. Why not use the opportunity for character development?
Naturally, as soon as the class ended, I rushed to my laptop, to see whether the first thing the protagonist of the novel I’m currently revising was, you know, catchy. Much to my surprise, what she says first is not only character-revealing, but positively integral to her character: the very first words within quotation marks are, “What can I do to help?”
I patted myself on the back so hard that I started to cough. My protagonist is a pediatrician who specializes in treating abused and neglected children — and who has spent her entire life bailing various members of her extended commune-dwelling family out of their various self-induced messes. I felt awfully darned clever, let me tell you.
But then I started to wonder: perhaps we all know subconsciously that the first line a character speaks is important; maybe most of our first lines of dialogue are pretty apt. Perhaps — hard as this is to believe — many of us have been making those first few words count without (gasp!) being told to do it by some writing guru.
At least, I would like to think so.
Which is why I am going to turn the question over to you, both for your commentary and your composition consideration: what is the first line of dialogue YOUR protagonist speaks in your novel? And is it character-revealing? If not, could you change it to make it so?