Saturday, January 28, 2012

First Lines and Setup

Katherine Heigl and Daniel Sunjata (Ranger)
Yesterday I saw the movie One for the Money, based on Janet Evanovich's first Stephanie Plum book. The opening was a little slow (I think my husband dozed off). The film set up the situation, introduced most of the characters, and worked its way toward the problem. Once that was out of the way, it took off and was fun. Most of the casting was quite good, especially Katherine Heigl and Jason O'Mara.
The slow start made me think of the story setup in books. (I can't remember how it went in Evanovich's book except that I was hooked from the beginning.) It's quite a feat to create interest from the first line. Most of us want to explain what's going on before we get to the story. That's usually the first draft stage. Ruthless pruning comes in later stages.
Daniel Craig as James Bond
Ideally first lines, but more realistically first paragraphs, should draw us right in and make us want to keep reading. The opening scene in One for the Money has left me, but Heigl was cute enough to carry it anyway. One that stands out is the opening of Casino Royale, the new one with Daniel Craig. We didn't know anything about the setup but that scene was compelling and dramatic. These two movies are probably not fair examples, because who in the world doesn't know James Bond? And many know Stephanie Plum.
Meanwhile, how does your first line do? I've included a few from recent reads. I only used the first sentence because I didn't get permission and with the current emphasis on copyright laws, I decided to include several and stick to a single sentence. Whole paragraphs are much better and give a better idea of the story, but here they are.
These are all books I enjoyed. Most have samples on the author's website or on Amazon. Try them—I bet you'll want to keep reading.

The vintage Cadillac sailed slowly through the cemetery gates like a battleship looking for its berth. Murder Half Baked by Kathleen Delaney.
What did a man born rich and privileged look like after spending fifteen years in prison and another six hiding in these mountains? Murder Déjà Vu by Polly Iyer.
Eva Molnar had held out as long as she dared. Murder on the Danube by William S. Shepard.
Oh God, I don't want to go in there. To Tell the Truth by Faye M. Tollison.
Dead if you stay, dead if you jump . . . The Past Came Hunting by Donnell Ann Bell.
For the longest time, Nell Marchand believed the happiest day of her life was the one on which she'd married dashing blueblood Daniel Ellis Overton Marchand IV. Fortune's Fool by Jane Sevier.
Claire checked her rearview mirror once more for the mismatched headlights—tonight, thank goodness, no one lurked on her tail. Cold Comfort by Ellis Vidler.
The wrought-iron gates stood open—again. Dear Killer by Linda Lovely.
"I'm moving in with your girlfriend," said James Stuart. Charleston's Lonely Heart Hotel by Steve Brown.
Something didn't feel right. Bad Spirits I by D.V. Berkom.
Except for the mermaid on a weedy patch of sea grass ghosting in her wake, Katrina Hunter's solo sail into Mexican headwaters had been monotonous and uneventful. A Dangerous Harbor by RP Dahlke.
How about sharing your first line? What do you try to accomplish with it? 

15 comments:

Linda Lovely said...

Thanks for including the first line of DEAR KILLER, Ellis. I think I change the opening of every manuscript at least six or seven times before I'm happy!

Polly said...

And thanks for including mine. First lines are so important. You want to show something of the character or the situation to make the reader curious enough to read the second line. Then the first paragraph. But when you get that magical sentence, you know it.

Ellis Vidler said...

That magic can be hard to come by. I rewrite many times, and those first lines can be sooooo hard! Linda, I've read several of yours--they're always good.

Polly, yours are intriguing too. I know how hard you work on them, and each incarnation is better than the last.

Here's my current one from my WIP.

Grown women didn’t lurk in trees and spy on people, and that’s how it would look if someone discovered her.

Be honest and tell me how it strikes you.

Polly said...

Excellent line, Ellis. Makes me want to know what she's doing in the trees and who she's spying on. Definitely a keeper.

Donnell said...

Oh, Ellis, thank you for including mine. You all know I love your first lines, and your seconds, and your thirds ...I'm on deadline, my son's getting married and I'm working hard and not checking e-mail. I love first lines... okayyyyy here's my numero uno in my WIP...


If Webb Jenkins winked and said, “Good luck, little lady” one more time, Irene Turner would be hard pressed not to look over her shoulder—the one with the 20-gauge shotgun nestled beneath it—and quip, “Thank you, little fella.”

Polly said...

Love it, Donnell. Can't wait to read both your books.

Here's my WIP:

Diana Racine, Fraud of the Century.

(It's a newspaper headline.)

Polly said...

When I said both your books, I meant Ellis and Donnell. I've already read Donnell's and it's terrific. It's still early.

Kathleen Delaney said...

Ellis, thank you for including my first line. Nice to be in such good company, great intro's all. Which is not easy. Sometimes that "magic sentence comes unbiden, mostly is the 16th or so thing you tried.
Here's the opening for Dead in a Manger, my latest WIP.

Mary McGill stood on the top of the library steps, trying to hear the person shouting into her cell phone. She could only make out every other word. It sounded as if they said the cow had run away. She should have learned to text.


Kathleen Delney
And Murder For Desert
Murder Half-Baked

Donnell said...

ooooh, Polly, I would put that book down at that point. Not! I knew what your meant ;)


LOL, Kathleen, right there, I'm frustrated with your protagonist. It takes me 30 minutes to send a text, plus, I'm hard of hearing... cow ran away indeed

Fun idea, Ellis! Thank you!

Ellis Vidler said...

Kathleen, I sympathize. Between fuzzy sound and texting, I have a hard time with cell phones. But I do like your opening. Good one.

Donnell, I'm ready for your next one. Will it be a standalone or more of the same characters? When's it due?

bj said...

First lines from my bedside table:
"Nine months Landsman's been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered." The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon
"Aimee Leduc felt his presence before she saw him." Murder in the Marais by Cara Black
"At 7:35 a.m. Ishigami left his apartment as he did every weekday morning." The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino. All three very good crime novels. Higashino's opening leaves something to be desired--maybe it's a cultural difference.

Ellis Vidler said...

See, we have a whole new crop of first lines to post. Enticing stuff, isn't it? And all so different. But each reflects the style of our books. I'd say thats a good thing. Keep it up, y'all!

Ellis Vidler said...

BJ, those are quite different lines. I've never read Chabon or Higashino, but I do like Cara Black. How about your opening line? Care to put it out here?

DV Berkom said...

Thank you, Ellis, for including Bad Spirits. All of the first lines you listed are terrific and really draw the reader in.

Great post!

Ellis Vidler said...

We were about to give up and call it a night when someone dropped the girl off the bridge.
Darker Than Amber by John D. MacDonald

Steve Brown, author of Charleston's Lonely Heart Hotel, sent me this.