Saturday, February 5, 2011

In the beginning . . .

We all know the opening line is the most important sentence of the book, followed by the first paragraph. It must hook the reader, make him want to know more. It has to be relevant to the story, not just an intriguing opening. The opening ought to show a change, usually unwelcome, in the current situation.
The hook also tells the reader the kind of story to expect and shows the style and pace of the book. If your style is terse and fast-moving, the hook should reflect it. If you have a soft, poetic style, then the hook should show it.
How do you feel about first lines? What do you look for? What do you think about these?
1.   Call me Ishmael.
2.  Scarlet O'hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.
3.  Nathan Rubin died because he got brave.
What are some of your favorites?
For me, the best opening lines show something that implies conflict or a problem. They’re lean and uncluttered. It’s too tempting to cram a whole setup into that first line—I’ve read many where the writer succumbed. I have too, but I try to go back and include only what (I hope) will intrigue the reader, only what will compel her to read on.
I admit to a prejudice against opening with dialogue. It seems to float out there like a helium balloon. Who said it? Why should I care? I really want to know who’s speaking and have some hint of mood or situation. But if the beginning is dialogue, it needs to go somewhere fast. Cut any meaningless stuff like “How are you?” or “What did you do today?” How about “I have AIDS.” It certainly indicates a problem, but I wouldn’t stop there, because alone that could be anything from an inspirational memoir, a love story, or the opening of a murder mystery.
Instead, maybe, “I have AIDS—the question is, where did I get it?” Nigel’s breath came in short, hard gasps as he waited for his wife’s answer. Skip the opening stuff that tells the reader Nigel got home later than usual, and Selena, his beautiful wife of four years, met him at the door.
I’d start with Nigel and his breathing. Nigel’s breath came in short, hard gasps. “I have AIDS . . .” He waited for his wife’s answer.
Those opening lines are from
1.       Moby Dick, Herman Melville
2.      Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
3.      Die Trying, Lee Child


15 comments:

E. B. Davis said...

I won't judge a book on the first line or even the first paragraph. After the first chapter, I make an assessment. But then, I'm a sympathetic writer.

Here are some of my favorite first lines:

"Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostaligia, a dream." Cannery Row, John Steinbeck

"On the Ides of March, in his forty-fifth year, the neutral if not cooperative world turned on Mr. Raleigh W. Hayes as sharply as if it had stabbed him with a knife." Handling Sin, Michael Malone

And maybe the best (although dated)

"If this typewriter can't do it, then fuck it, it can't be done." Still Life With Woodpecker, Tom Robbins

Ellis Vidler said...

I love the one from Cannery Row. I'd forgotten it. I usually read a few pages unless the opening is really bad or has a lot of typos or errors. Knowing how hard we work to perfect those first pages, I figure the rest of the book will be worse.
But a good opening hook that arouses my curiosity will keep me going longer.

Sandy Cody said...

I like:

"In December, 1954, Henry Soames would hardly have said his life was just beginning."
Nickel Mountain, John Gardner

I compels me to read the next line. Can any writer hope for more?

Polly said...

There was a discussion on Facebook about this very thing yesterday, and it prompted me to rewrite the first line of my WIP. I think we have to constantly remind ourselves about this because, if you're a pantser, you get caught up in the rest of the book and don't rethink the beginning. The mood may change, the crux of the story may too. What's important when you start may not have as much meaning by the time you finish. As hard as it is, we should give every line in the book the same attention we give the first line.

Pauline Alldred said...

For me, a first line that shows a person with a concrete problem is an immediate hook. I wonder what they are going to do about it and why is it a problem now. And all these comments make me take another look at my first lines.

Ellis Vidler said...

Sandy, anything that compels me to read the next line has to be good. I can only hope.

Polly, I can't say I give them all the same attention even though I go over the whole thing many times. Usually the rest fits in and has some flow. The first line has to start from nowhere, and it's hard.

Yes, Pauline, I want a concrete problem too. But do I always have it? No. Sometimes it's only a hint, but you're right. So I need to take another look and see if I can jack it up. Or start somewhere else in the story. Sigh.

Gail Baugniet said...

My favorite opening-line is from Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Not only do I find the line poetic, rolling smoothly off my tongue or around my mind, it is economical at only 9 words.

Within those 9 words, she has managed to peak my curosity. To whom is Mrs. Dalloway talking? What is she buying the flowers for, or for whom? Why must she be the one to buy the flowers?

So many questions generated by one simple, as opposed to compound, sentence. I've spent many hours attempting to duplicate this feat!

Donnell said...

Hi, Ellis, I won't stop at the first line, I might lose a keeper for my keeper shelf. One of my favorite novels is "Envy" by Sandra Brown. And the opening doesn't even have a complete sentence... The first line reads ...Saltines and sardines. Staples of his diet.

Sometimes you just have to trust the author, but if your aspiring, you better have a killer sentence.

Here's one from Harlen Coben. See if you'd stop reading after this... From Just one Look

Scott Duncan sat across from the killer.


Yep, I could put the book down after that... Not ;) Great/fun post. Thank you!

Ellis Vidler said...

Donnell, I liked Envy too. Such good characters. I didn't remember the opening line, but something must have hooked me because I couldn't put it down.

Gail, that really is a good line from Woolf. She implied a lot with those few words. I keep trying but I have a long way to go. So far no memorable first lines for me.

VR Barkowski said...

I try to keep my first lines interesting, because it's expected. But for me, as a reader, the first line is irrelevant. I will always read at least the first page before I say yay or nay to a book. I resent being manipulated by first lines that give me neither character nor tone but try to shock me into reading on.

Here are a couple of recent favorites I noted in my reading journal, both by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

"A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story." THE ANGEL'S GAME

"I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time."
THE SHADOW OF THE WIND

Ellis Vidler said...

Viva, I may resent it not being able to do it my way, but I still try to do it the recommended way. Cowardly, I guess.
But one I love that certainly doesn't conform is the opening line (really a paragraph) of Anne of Green Gables. It does everything it's supposed to do in LOTS of words, maybe 100+ in one sentence. (I didn't count.) It fits the book perfectly.

Donnell said...

Ellis, you are a genius ;) It has to fit the book. If you write a sentence simply to draw the reader in and don't follow through, you've wasted an inordinate time on one sentence. Thought-provoking you!

VR Barkowski said...

The opening line of Scott Spencer's mystery, Man in the Woods is like that, too. Almost a full paragraph, but wonderful. I couldn't help but read on. I guess we're both cowards, Ellis, as I would never have the courage to try to get something like that past an editor.

Carol L.Wright said...

So true that we have to match the first line to the book. I have a killer first line for my cozy, but it reads like suspense. Back to the drawing board.

One of my favorite first lines is by an author whom I met one summer when we both attended the Iowa Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa. Carleen Brice wrote in Orange Mint and Honey: I should have known things were getting bad when Nina Simone showed up.

What could possibly cause a famous (but dead) jazz singer to show up in someone's room? That's a hook!

Ellis Vidler said...

Yes, I'm definitely a coward. I might write a paragraph-long opening, but I'd go back and chop it up and try to conform.

Carol, I DO like that line. Of course, if Nina showed up in my room, I'd just hope she was singing. She's one of my favorites and in one of my two WIPs with See-Line Woman. I wish I could use the lyrics, or better yet, have it as the background to a trailer.