This past Sunday we were sitting around the dinner table, chewing the fat as it were, enjoying the Father’s Day afterglow of a beef and baby back rib take-out feast. The commentary between Sally, Shannon and myself jumped between former “girlfriends” of mine—I use quotes because none of these relationships were ever formalized, except in my fevered dreams—and the exceptional meal we had just enjoyed.
For some reason we jumped over the subject of “Humor.” I was explaining how, at an early age, the creation of a joke and the reception of a laugh gripped my soul and led me down a questionable path from which I have never fully
As eyes glazed over and rolled back into the heads of my captive audience I was about to expound on the comics and humorists who have influenced me. There was Steve Allen, Alan King, Albert Brooks (“OK, BOOMER!”) and the inimitable literary stylings of Jean Shepherd just for starters.
Sensing a need to save the evening from devolving into a lecture hall thesis of uncertain social value Sally tried to save the conversation with: “Why don’t you read something for Shannon by Max Shulman?”
Ah, Max! I thought, reveling in the memory of dozens of hours I had poured over his outlandish, whimsical novels emitting peals of laughter. Ah, Max, indeed.
“You know, Shannon,” I began, “I believe the most important sentence in any book, fiction or nonfiction, is the very first one. The opening line is a gateway to the rest of the story and too many authors throw away the opportunity to catch the reader —hook him like a wide-mouthed bass — with that initial glimpse of what’s to come in the rest of the book.
“That brings us to Max Shulman. He was a novelist in the 50s and 60s who wrote with absurdity and whimsy. Now there was a man who believed in the power of an opening line. In fact, he penned what many including myself have come to regard as the greatest first sentence in the history of literature:
“Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Four shots ripped into my groin and I was off on the greatest adventure of my life!”
— Max Shulman, Opening Sentence of Sleep Till Noon
He had such audacity. Nobody starts a book like that and then chases it with, “But first, let me tell you a little about myself” followed by half a book’s worth of flashback before returning to the pivotal gunshots.
I’ve never written a short story, let alone a novel. But if I ever do venture into fiction I know I will employ the Shulman technique of grabbing the reader by the lapel, shaking him nose-to-nose like a bug-eyed madman, “GO AHEAD. IGNORE THIS AT YOUR OWN PERIL!
But why wait for the novel for which I may never find time or inspiration? What I really crave, much like Shulman, is to craft the perfect opening line. Then someday I might get around to finishing the book to justify the existence of that gold nugget of a sentence.
And so, Dear Reader, I have taken great pains to create five examples that illustrate the Shulman Theory. Here are the self-imposed rules I followed:
- Be audacious. No timidity allowed.
- Pack enough into the sentence to make the reader work a little to get the point.
- If possible, BE FUNNY! (or at least ironic)
With that criteria in mind here are my candidates. Please pay attention. There will be a pop quiz after the dissertation.
The Opening Sentence of My First Novel
“The six-figure suit Lawson brought against his former employer turned out to be three sizes too big.”
“With his dying breath Benson realized he should not have begun work on The World’s Largest Ice Sculpture in the boiler room of his basement.”
“Because it was his first solo flight, Icarus spent a good deal longer than he normally would deciding whether to apply SPF 30 or 50.”
“Ten-year-old Joe Schloboski raced from the schoolhouse and across the prairie field, breathless to share his latest entrepreneurial brainstorm—selling pictures and rhyme on bleached cardboard to easy marks at outrageous prices—with his best pal, young Billy Hallmark.”
“After being summarily fired, young Peter Best of Liverpool tossed back his greased locks, puffed out a manly chest past his leather jacket and thought to himself, ‘What bloody good luck—now I can finally join a real band.’ ”
Now it’s your turn. Follow the rules above. Write the Opening Sentence of Your First Novel and make it a great one! No explanations. No back story. No multiple sentences. It must stand or fall on its own merits. One sentence that tells the world “I am a writer —great or awful —and I will NOT be ignored!” Post it in the comments section for all of us to judge and enjoy.