DATE: Wed 13 Oct 2021 18:48 By: HexDSL@Posteo.net
I had a conversation with a friend today. He was talking about writing and how its done, I went off on my usual rant about how I think the opening line of a novel is the scariest moment any writer is faced with.
It is in my opinion the act of looking at all of the infinite possibility that a story has, and then deciding that THIS, this one sentence will be the one you from all of creation that is best for this story. From all the possible words and ways to combine them it was these words which the writer chose. Its terrifying and glorious and romantic and beautiful.
The opening line is the line that EVERY reader will gaze upon. Even if they hate your work they will have read the opening line often before they even notice. It gets to all of them. Its in there.
Lets look at the best one. The one I never have to think about to remember, the one that has travelled with me for decades now.
William Gibson at some point sat down and wrote these immortal words which resonated with a generation and birthed modern Cyberpunk.
“The sky above the port was the color of television tuned to a dead channel”
We have the words which if understood without effort fixes you in a place and time. If you simply understand it thought consideration, or a moments though then you were born in the seventies or eighties, maybe just maybe early nineties.
“The color of television tuned to a dead channel.” Static and white and random and infinite and scary and familiar and mysterious and most of all, empty. Empty of hope and empty of promises. Sometimes it strobes with a rainbow as the old TV flickers with its chromatic feedback. Whatever happened is now over. Its the end of a story that’s now forgotten.
“Tuned to a dead channel” shows you one thing and one thing only, its late at night. The assumption you make is that its later because TV channels used “close” a little after the early hours began. Its always possible the channel is dead because the transmission ended and the TV station doesn’t even exist any more. But if its dead there was something before, and now it has gone.
Even though the predominant colour of the dead channel is the white of static, the implication is that it is night time, blackness. If its a dead channel not just a faulty TV, there was something. That thing is over now. This story takes place POST something. We don’t know what or why but we do know, as readers we somehow we know it’s the future. But we are talking about TV’s so its not the distant future. It’s something familiar.
The static implies to the reader that the blackness is punctuated with white, is that rain or snow? We imagine the character is cold. I always think of the drops of rain being lit with the glow if the city neon. We just somehow know. We image a figure in a coat with their breath visible and they are in a rush, no one wants to be in the cold do they, the only reason you would be out at night in the cold is because you are going somewhere.
The word “port” is here too. What kind of port? Sea port? Space port? Car port? Air port? Whatever, we know that we are near a place that is filled with mystery and commerce and strangers. We imagine a myriad of different accents and fashions. We imagine a sea of faceless strangers and we know its never quiet even at night, even now. We also know that its lonely, and we don’t even know how we know. Then we realize. The character is out at night, in a less than safe area of the city, and we know its a city because ports are not in fields, the character has business to do.
Ports are usually at least in fiction (all of it) are things that attract unsavoury characters. We know that the person looking at the sky and thinking about the port has reasons, do they want to go some place? So they want to mix with the strangers, maybe the criminals? Are they meeting someone? We have so many questions, but combine it with the rest of the information.
They are looking at the sky and they know there’s a port near. They are local, or at least familiar with this area. They are a part of this world and they know it well.
Talking about the television tuned to a dead channel emanates feelings of an eighties version of the future, not one imagined now, but one projected forward for forty years. It’s a line that gets better with age and has impaled weariness and a little wisdom. The like literally improved with age.
The last thing we know is that whomever is saying this line is someone who is deep in thought, someone who is considering their options, how do we know? Because you don’t look at the sky at night, in the middle of a city unless something inside you is looking for faith, for courage or for hope. Whomever it is wants more than they have.
Now, put it all together: We have a character, out at night, up to no good but to what extent we don’t know. The character is cold and alone in a city and they feel like they are without hope for a better future. We sense they are lonely and filled with regret for the past. We know all this and on a conscious level we don’t even know why. Then the novel takes over and carries us the rest of the way and it is glorious.
We know all of this because of one fucking line. We know this because William Gibson is a god damned fucking genius!