The clocks were striking thirteen

When I’m browsing for a book to read, I always check out the first couple of lines. If they grab me, I’m more than half way there. I want to know what happens next.

  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – George Orwell, 1984.
  • “They shoot the white girl first.” —Toni Morrison, Paradise.
  • “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.” —William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury.

Kind of hard to resist.

Leading off a speech – an article, report, or any text for that matter – is not very different. If you can grab your audience at the get-go with a great line or even a compelling story, you’ve got a pretty good shot at holding their interest.

But terrific first lines, while usually powerful in their simplicity, don’t come easily. Writers often only find them after writing some junky first drafts that tend to include everything they can think of.

Then we begin the process of paring it all down. Reading the stuff out loud helps us find what’s unnecessary (If we stumble on the words, chances are good they can be revised or eliminated), and then we cut and edit, and cut and edit, and cut and edit some more.

And if we’re lucky, we just might carve out a gem of an opening line.  The audience won’t know the work that goes into it, but they will appreciate the effort with their undivided attention.

Don Heymann

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