Backstories Creative Process Discussion of writing style

Hopefully, your opening line does not need a possum

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 a selection of the most famous opening lines in English literature. Back in 2017, The Poke, a humorous website, 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 highly amused by some of the examples from readers. That one line, “And then the murders began”, has numerous functions: it creates anticipation; it starts a build-up of dramatic tension; and it has just enough detail to puzzle and engage the reader.

The particular line, and its function and effect, is called “Laidlaw’s Rule” (#LaidlawsRule), and people have used the line in clever ways – if you follow the link, you’ll see.

The statement implies that there will be more than one death, that a mystery assailant is involved, and that an extended period of horror can be expected. If used in a suspense or thriller novel in which a murder or two happens, it would add to the plot development and increase the fright factor.

But if you were to use it in a different genre, for instance in a children’s book, the incongruity would create rather grown-up humour and generate a shudder. For example, in the illustration, below, taken from a spoof of Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. So, it probably won’t do for a children’s book.

That one interesting line, by Eric Laidlaw, when added tongue-in-cheek to The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.

Which line is it anyway?

How would it work, though, if the line were not “And then the murders began”, but rather something that popped randomly into my head: “But then they found themselves on a possum wool farm in New Zealand”?

Would it have the same effect? I decided to do a test and see if it meets Laidlaw’s criteria:

Geographical or time distancing? ✓
Future anticipation? ✓ “But one day…”
Mystery and possibly horror? ✓Possums are awfully controversial critters, didn’t you know?
Exoticism? ✓ New Zealand of all places.
Potential for a ten-hanky-weepie for the deaths of the poh’ lill’ wild (pest) possums? ✓

Check all. Yes, it could work.

It’s possums not opossums

Note, all you Persnickety Problem Pursuers out there: I am referring to possums, not opossums – though they are both marsupials. Possums are native to Australia, New Zealand, China, and other countries. Opossums are native to the USA and Canada. Opossums have hairless tails, pointy faces, pink noses, sharp teeth and coarse fur, whereas possums are smaller, have rounded bodies, big googly eyes, and a thick, soft golden or brown coat. Opossums belong to the Didelphimorphia order, whereas possums belong to the Diprotodontia order. So, this is about the cutie possums. Well, the pesky, destructive, cutie possums with the very soft, warm fur which is so perfect for winter gloves.

Possumized quotes

Let the silliness commence! All these authors are long dead and gone so I don’t think they will sue me for messing with their famous titles and opening lines.

“Oh, lawdy, Rhett, is that a possum – or am I in a tizzy?”
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

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

In Cyrillic, the sub-title says: “And Possums”. Possum fur would be really nice and warm in those icy Russian winters…

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)

Possum to the parrot: “She’s got brows like Frida Kahlo.”
Parrot to the possum: “That’s the curse of the Buendía Family.”

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; translated by Gregory Rabassa)

To misquote Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now: “The horror! The horror! It’s a possum!”

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

Just imagine it: Neverland overrun by possums. What’s more: Flying Possums!

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)

What about closing lines?

If a Laidlaw-type line like this can add vim and vigour to the opening of a novel, can it do the same for the closing line of a novel? Probably, as in the example, below;

“And, grinning broadly at the look of horror on Uncle Vernon’s face, Harry set off toward the station exit, Hedwig rattling along in front of him, for what looked like a much better summer than the last. But one day they found themselves on a possum wool farm in New Zealand.”

– Not Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by JK Rowling (1999)
See that possum waving at you from Hermione’s lap? Soon it will be doomsday for the little critter.

The perfect opening line(s), defined by Stephen King

While I had fun with these opening and closing lines, the exercise mainly served to test my knowledge of opening lines and my ability to fit the sentence in.

In reality, the line would not work in the novels I looked at, mainly because the very next line of the book already had all the elements that a Laidlaw-type of line has: excitement, intrigue, foreshadowing, humour, engagement of the reader, references to another time or location, indications of a change in the plot, and so on.

And therein lies the rub: a well-written opening of a story shouldn’t need another line. The more I looked at those amended quotes, the more superfluous the line seemed to be. In fact, it is possible that adding an incongruent one-liner detracts from the reader’s use of their own imagination to answer the question; What’s next?

What makes for a great start or end to a novel?

The question of what makes for a great start or end to a novel, can be answered by looking again at those altered quotes (above).

Un-read that line about the possum farm, and you’ll see those lines are great just as they are.

Famous opening lines, like those quoted, are famous and quotable for good reason: they have been perfectly crafted for maximum impact, engagement and enticement, and are the essences of the novels that they introduce.

Author Stephen King says that once a writer has spent time crafting the perfect, irresistible opening line or lines, nothing, not a word, nor another sentence, nor punctuation, can improve it. The trick is to invite the reader into the story:

“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, July 23, 2013, Why Stephen King Spends ‘Months and Even Years’ Writing Opening Sentences, retrieved Jan. 17, 2022

That being the case, if you got it right, like Stephen King says, then your readers will keep right on reading, no teasers about possums or murders needed.

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