Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Best opening line

The best opening in contemporary drama is this one, from “True West”:

“So, Mom took off for Alaska, huh?”

Look how much it tells us:

  1. Because we see two men on stage, and the one refers to “Mom,” they must be brothers.
  2. This character who says it, Lee, didn’t know Mom was gone, and now he’s asking about her. So clearly, he’s been away.
  3. Not only was he away, he’s been out of touch with Mom. In general, middle-aged women don’t take off for Alaska on a moment’s notice. Lee knew nothing about it, so, unlike many of us, he doesn’t give Mom a courtesy call once a week.
  4. He’s also been out of touch with his brother, Austin. Austin knows Mom’s gone, so he probably knew Mom was going, too. Yet Lee didn’t.
  5. Because she took off for Alaska, Mom’s probably not coming back soon. It’s far away. (Although she does show up unexpectedly late in the play, we are led to believe that she won’t. This provides backdrop for her sons’ actions throughout the play. If she were coming home any minute, they might behave very differently.)
  6. Mom’s gone, and Austin is there in the house. Everything seems in order. This tells us that he probably has a good relationship with Mom. She trusted him.
  7. It also tells us that she was probably right to do so. Everything looks to be in order. It seems that Austin is a responsible person, so Mom’s trust is warranted.
  8. Lee, on the other hand, seems belligerent, right from this opening line. There’s something snotty about the way the question is framed: Mom didn’t “go” to Alaska, she “took off” – as though someone or something is being left behind. And the “huh?” hardly seems casual.
  9. Lee’s resentment is palpable, both at Mom because she’s not there…
  10. …And at at Austin because he is. Lee went looking for Mom, and instead found Austin in her place. Or, more appropriately given what we know of sibling rivalry, in Lee’s place.
  11. Given his upset at finding Mom missing, Lee probably came seeking Mom or help of some sort. Why is he there? Because he needed something.

Did Sam Shepard know all this before he wrote the line? Probably not. Was this the first line as he wrote it, or did he find it later in the rewriting process? I have no idea. But this one line achieves a near miracle in launching the play. It sets up a stark conflict between two very different men, united by blood but divided by need, still waging their sibling war decades into adulthood against the placid backdrop of Mom’s kitchen and, later, the unseen terra incognita of Dad’s desert wasteland.

I think “True West” is a masterpiece. Not a word I toss around lightly.

That first line tells us a great, great deal, without any resort to exposition. It seems effortless. Moreover, because it’s clearly the response to a previous line – one we don’t get to hear because it happened before we got to enter their universe – we feel that we’re dropped directly into the action of the play. This play doesn’t just start when it starts, it starts a moment before it starts. That would be a problem if our initial reaction were one of confusion – who are these guys? Where are these guys? What’s going on? – but Shepard addresses all that with this very first line.

Unlike “True West,” too many plays start long after they start.

One Response to “Best opening line”

  1. leewochner.com » Blog Archive » On opening lines (my own) Says:

    […] Recently I talked about opening lines here, going on to express my ongoing fascination with the opening of “True West” here. Playwright EM Lewis responded by asking what was my favorite opening line from one of my own plays… and that, ladies and gentlemen, is an example of how a writer spends 90 minutes doing something more “fun” than working on his current project. […]

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