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


Great opening lines

And I don’t mean for you to use in a bar.

No, I mean great opening lines in drama.

Tonight in one of my classes at USC I invested half an hour in discussing what I think is the best opening line in all of contemporary drama, this one from “True West” by Sam Shepard:

“So, Mom took off for Alaska, huh?”

(More about that — and the 13 things it tells you — tomorrow.)

Shepard grabs us and pulls us right into the play. Too many plays – including too many of his own plays – start long after they start. When I’m rereading my plays with an eye toward production, one of the questions I ask is, “Is this really the opening line?” Or, is that opening line buried somewhere on page 3? If it truly is on page 3, your play probably should be two pages shorter.

How do you know if you’ve got the right opening line? Some questions that help:

  1. Does it say something about the speaker?
  2. Does it say something about the setting?
  3. Does it say something about the play, helping us understand why we’re here?
  4. Most importantly, does it help start the play by grabbing the audience in some way?

You’ve really got only a few minutes to enlist the aid of your audience. If it’s a comedy, you’ve got less than that – audiences need permission to laugh. (Nobody wants to be the only person laughing – they’re afraid to be wrong and look foolish.)

It’s best to get your play started right away.

3 Responses to “Great opening lines”

  1. Ellen Says:

    Good thoughts on an important subject! I’m very fond of Sam Shepard. I love the voices in his plays. What’s your own favorite opening line, for one of your plays?

  2. Lee Wochner Says:

    After spending an hour looking at opening lines of various plays of mine, I’ve decided to make this a separate post. Or five. Thanks for asking. (And no — not one of them is as good as the opening of “True West.”)

  3. 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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