(Above: Spot the possum details on these re-imagined book covers. Graphics by M. Bijman)
I wondered what would happen if I added the random sentence, “But one day they found themselves on a possum wool farm in New Zealand” – to the most famous opening lines ever written. The Poke, a website that gathers in one place all the foolishness on the internet, recently reposted a thread that said: If you’re looking for a new way to improve classic works of literature, then the internet is here to help – all you need to do is add “and then the murders began” as the second sentence. The idea, by Science Fiction and horror writer Marc Laidlaw, caught on, and I was hugely entertained by the examples from readers. What that line does is create anticipation and start a build-up of dramatic tension, with just enough detail to puzzle and engage the reader: more than one death, a mystery assailant, an extended period of horror, etc. It works for suspense and thriller novels in which a murder or two would be suitable to build the plot or increase the fright factor. When used in a children’s book, the incongruity creates humour, like in the illustration, below, taken from Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
How would it work, though, if the line “But one day they found themselves on a possum wool farm in New Zealand” – were added to the opening lines of romances or literary fiction? Would the sentence work the same as “And then the murders began”? Geographical or time distancing? ✓ Future anticipation? ✓ Intrigue and possibly horror – a possum farm (eek!)? ✓ Exoticism – New Zealand of all places? ✓ Potential for a ten-hanky-weepie for the poh’ lill’ possums? ✓ Check all.
Let the silliness commence – and I ask the great authors I quote below to forgive me from the grave.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. But one day they found themselves on a possum wool farm in New Zealand. —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. But one day they found themselves on a possum wool farm in New Zealand. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877; trans. Constance Garnett)
Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. But one day they found themselves on a possum wool farm in New Zealand. —Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind, 1936
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. But one day they found themselves on a possum wool farm in New Zealand. —L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between, 1953
All children, except one, grow up. But one day they found themselves on a possum wool farm in New Zealand. —J.M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy, 1911 (novelization of Peter Pan)
A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. But one day they found themselves on a possum wool farm in New Zealand. —Graham Greene, The End of the Affair, 1951
In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together. But one day they found themselves on a possum wool farm in New Zealand. —Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, 1940
They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But one day they found themselves on a possum wool farm in New Zealand. —Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, 1966
I have to admit, I thoroughly amused myself with these. Facetiousness aside, most famous opening lines are famous for good reason: they have been perfectly crafted for maximum impact and enticement, and are the miniature essences of the novels they introduce. As author Stephen King explains, once a writer has spent time crafting the irresistible opening line, then nothing, not a word nor punctuation, can improve on it:
“There are all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good opening line. It’s tricky thing, and tough to talk about because I don’t think conceptually while I work on a first draft — I just write. To get scientific about it is a little like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar.
But there’s one thing I’m sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this. How can a writer extend an appealing invitation — one that’s difficult, even, to refuse?”
(Interview with Joe Fassler in The Atlantic, Why Stephen King Spends ‘Months and Even Years’ Writing Opening Sentences)