On the Shelf (First Lines)

A year ago, we were at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony. One of the posts that stemmed from that writers’ residency involved pulling novels of the shelf at the cabin and looking at first lines.

BestAmScienceWe’ve been reading The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014, and we thought it might be useful to look at the first lines of what’s been deemed not just good but best. This collection contains 26 essays representing work from 18 magazines. Some of the essays are short, just three or four pages, whereas others run fifteen or twenty pages. A number of the essays are by big-name writers with whose work we’re familiar, like Nicholas Carr, Barbara Kingsolver, Rebecca Solnit, and Carl Zimmer. The range of topics is wide, given the constraint of science and nature writing: genes, the human brain and reading, mourning among animals, end-of-life care for humans, space exploration, and so on.

In other words, we’re interested in whether, given the variety in this collection, we can learn anything as writers from their first sentences to apply to our first sentences. Here’s a sampling of the opening sentence from each of the first ten essays in the book.

“I love getting huge boxes of blood,” says the genetic ornithologist Rachel Vallender as she pulls open a drawer full of small plastic vials in her laboratory at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, where she’s a visiting scientist. (“Mixed Up” by Katherine Bagley

On the evening of February 12, 2009, a Continental Connection commuter flight made its way through blustery weather between Newark, New Jersey, and Buffalo, New York. (“The Great Forgetting” by Nicholas Carr)

A few years ago, Gene Robinson, of Urbana, Illinois, asked some associates in southern Mexico to help him kidnap some one thousand newborns. (“The Social Life of Genes” by David Dobbs)

To avoid light pollution and bad weather, professional astronomers have to be prepared to travel long distances to use telescopes on mountaintops far away from towns or cities. (“What Our Telescopes Couldn’t See” by Pippa Goldschmidt)

The call Rick Kress and every other citrus grower in Florida dreaded came while he was driving. (“A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA” by Amy Harmon)

If Margaret Pabst Battin hadn’t had a cold that day, she would have joined her husband, Brooke Hopkins, on his bike ride. (“A Life-or-Death Situation” by Robin Marantz Henig) 

Cheryl Whittle tried her best to fall asleep, but her mind kept racing. (“23 and You” by Virginia Hughes)

One of the most provocative viral YouTube videos in the past two years begins mundanely enough: a one-year-old girl plays with an iPad, sweeping her fingers across its touch screen and shuffling groups of icons. (“Why the Brain Prefers Paper” by Ferris Jabr)

Beneath the blinding white sky, where glaciers calve and crash into the Red Sea and the land surface of Antarctica begins, there are two isolated huts, the Discovery and the Terra Nova. (“O-Rings” by Sarah Stewart Johnson)

On a research vessel in the waters off Greece’s Amvrakikos Gulf, Joan Gozalvo watched a female bottlenose dolphin in obvious distress. (“When Animals Mourn” by Barbara J. King)

What can we glean from this sampling?

People matter! All of these opening sentences in essays that are supposed to be about science or nature include people. In six, at least one specific person is named. But even when a person isn’t mentioned by name, there are people there: commuters are implied by the flight, astronomers travel to telescopes, a real one-year-old uses an iPad, and somebody built those huts and probably still hangs around.

The presence of people from the get-go in a science essay doesn’t surprise us. We’ve written a lot before about how people matter to science, to how science gets told. In one of our posts, we refer to Rebecca Skloot’s (she wrote The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) claim, “People need stories in order to read science.” And stories need characters—in the case of nonfiction, real people.

ScienceBooksIn fact, these openings tend to establish scenes, as the authors are telling a story filled with characters, setting, and plot. We can see the scientist pulling open the drawer to look at her vials of blood. We can see that small aircraft bobbing in the turbulent air and perhaps remember the last time we were in a plane during bad weather, our seatbelts fastened. We can see the baby running her fingers across the latest electronic device. We can see that distressed dolphin swimming around, and we can see Joan watching, perhaps wondering what to do to help. There’s action and tension.

We want to know what happens next. Or at least we want to know what in the world this scene has to do with the topic we’re supposed to be reading about. Is it background? Is it an example? How does this scene help us puzzle through a complex topic like genetics?

Only a very few first lines don’t use these sorts of techniques. Notably, the most literary writer deviates the furthest from scene and into abstraction. Barbara Kingsolver’s “Where It Begins” starts with, “It all starts with the weather.” It’s a risky move to start with a pronoun that doesn’t really have an antecedent, to start with the generic, placeholder it. Of course, that’s what Charles Dickens did in A Tale of Two Cities—“It was the best of times, it was the worst of time”—but few writers should try to get away with that kind of opening. Kingsolver does a lot of risky things for a science writer in her essay, including leaving out grammatical subjects in the next sentences. The it becomes the crux of the essay, an overt technique. This essay isn’t your typical science writing but, rather, a lyric essay published by Orion, a magazine open to more literary approaches and overtly invested in shaping culture.

While it’s no surprise to us that, for the most part, people, setting, and scene carry the first line, we are surprised at how closely this approach mirrors what fiction writers advise. In an interview published in The Atlantic, Stephen King says:

An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this. […] This opening accomplishes something else: It’s a quick introduction to the writer’s style, another thing good first sentences tend to do.

Of course, first lines are just the beginning, whether you’re writing a novel or an article about science. As King says:

Listen, you can’t live on love, and you can’t create a writing career based on first lines.

A book won’t stand or fall on the very first line of prose—the story has got to be there, and that’s the real work.

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