Great Lines and Why Choice Matters

In literature, great opening lines set the tone. These are some of the all-time best:

Call me Ishmael, Moby Dick
Who is John Galt, Atlas Shrugged
Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting, Sound and the Fury
It was a bright, cold day in April and the Clocks were striking 13, 1984
It was love at first sight, Catch-22
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed, The Dark Tower
A screaming comes across the night sky, Gravity’s Rainbow

I have read all of these books except Gravity’s Rainbow. I came across a great opening line list on a website and there is something to be said about “A screaming comes across the night sky.” I’m not even sure what the book is about but feel the need to pick up a copy. It does grab your attention.

The others are considered to be some of the all-time great books. I wonder if these were the first lines the author wrote? I can picture Ayn Rand writing in longhand, Who is John Galt? Then, the gunslinger and her 1100+ pages followed. Did the 120 page soliloquy at the end of the book just come from blind inspiration? If you haven’t read Atlas Shrugged, there is a speech toward the end, well, it goes on for a bit. Meaningful? Perhaps. Long? Yes. Should you read it or skip over it? Depends. Some feel it is the best part of the book.

Do great opening lines happen in the editing process? Did the author labor for weeks? Or, does magic just happen, a moment of inspiration that hit when the clock turned 3AM?

When I first started writing Knights of Legend, I didn’t think about an over arching theme of the book. There was no grandiose plan or outline. Thinking back, there probably should have been. Part of me considers, you should always think about the ending first, know where you want to go. I’ve been trying to do more of this lately. For Knights, it might have shortened the writing process by at least two or three years. Some authors say you should finish a book in three months or it loses appeal. I’m not sure I necessarily agree with the thought. Obviously, I don’t. It took me eight years to finish the first book.

When I started, it took me a few weeks to write a chapter about a young boy going to meet his teammates on the baseball field for the first time. I remember writing it on the patio at night, huddled over a glowing screen while lights in a field lit up the night sky. He was going to meet a team that on paper didn’t have a chance to win. He knew it deep down.

For the lead character (Jason Sheridan), he had been forced against his will to get to a practice and meet a coach he never knew. There were many pushes that led him to that outfield fence as the night began to creep over the horizon. His father, town tradition, and the family farm had nudged him on his way. Still, he didn’t have to jump over the outfield fence to join the Knights. Jason Sheridan alone made the choice.

I believe we have the power to choose. It took me awhile to find the theme to Knights of Legend. It didn’t come overnight. Not by a long shot. Regardless of our religious views, choosing, in anything, is what makes us who we are. The choice to get out of bed in the morning, to go to work (or not), run that extra mile, or to help a neighbor in need prove important. No story written illustrates this quite like the Book of Job.

One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it.” And with that, the challenge begins. Satan argues any man will follow God if he is rewarded. But if the same man were to have it all taken away, what would he do?

Both Satan and God put forward their arguments. And perhaps God knows the answer before the game even begins. Yet, ultimately, it is up to Job to choose. For some, the Book of Job is the book of the Bible that answers the question of why bad things happen to good people. For me, Job’s choice defines who we are. It is what makes us human. It is why we matter, not only to us but others.

The first sentence I wrote in Knights of Legend wasn’t “Why have you wandered?” The old man whispers this before meeting his rival Morgan LeFey near Baydon Hill. This came much later in the writing process to heighten the impact of our choices. I had one editor who wanted me delete the entire conflict altogether. Focus on the kids. It might have been a better book. But I wanted to heighten the character’s choices and the impact. What we do at fifteen can matter. At least, I like to think so.

You see, even the decisions of a group of kids playing pony league baseball have consequences that could throw off the space time continuum. Perhaps, that is a bit heavy handed. But I once had this poem on my wall in college about what you do with each day. You can use this day to do good or evil. Or not do anything at all. I wish I could remember the author or exactly how it went. I lost it along time ago. Still, the meaning is there. I have today and what I do with it matters. We all matter. Hopefully, I don’t look back one day and wonder why have I wandered. Or at least I hope my day won’t end with a screaming comes across the night sky.