Monday, October 21, 2013

Start your book off strongly, but don't be lame!

Everyone's always talking about how a first line can make or break a book.

I can't believe that the FIRST LINE is the only thing a serious reader goes by when deciding whether a book is worth her time. It's tough for me to imagine that it's the only thing an acquiring editor or agent judges an entire novel by. I should expect that they'd give it at least a couple of paragraphs or perhaps the entire first page, on the grounds that this entire bit is the "opening" that should hook, intrigue, or at least interest you enough to get you turning more pages.

But they tell me that isn't true nowadays. The sample they download of your book (usually the first chapter or a little more) on the Kindle is going to get read if and only if they're not bored. I have had my opening lines picked over by critique partners and workshops until I wondered just how short an attention span can be.

Still, we can all agree that the first line is important. If the last line can circle back to reference it, so much the better. But let's look at various fun ways to start your book.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . . ." Um, taken. "It is a truth universally acknowledged--" No! Too many big words already. (LOL)

I like to begin with something a little philosophical. Some people get lofty and call it "a question about the meaning of life or a statement of eternal principle." Whew!

Leo Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina by writing, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Guess how many counseling seminars have been opened with the very same quotation?

Occasionally this can take the form of a single statement of theme. What is to come in this story? What is to be shown or demonstrated to us as we read this narrative? The theme can be in the subtext of the statement, or it can just be a straight-out declaration that makes readers go on to see if this can be proven or if it will be challenged.

"The primroses were over," begins Watership Down by Richard Adams. This may seem like a boring statement of fact, but to British readers, it did much more. It establishes the time of year and to some extent the setting (by implying that we're not in an urban environment but in the country, because the flora isn't as important as the streets of a city.) It illuminates a primary theme of the book, posing a story question by implication (what does this mean? What were the primroses indicating? Here, it establishes an ominous air if the reader is aware of the usual literary associations with primroses and the end of their blooming season. A bit obscure to the modern American readership.) The astute reader will also wonder whether the book will be mainly concerned with nature and the cycle of life as demonstrated in blooming/fading of plants. This line is echoed at the end of the novel, as well.


Your first few lines should indicate the tone of the novel--comic, dramatic/serious, wry. You don't want to promise the reader one kind of book (suspense) and end up writing another (cozy). You should establish the mood and the color right up front. Is it a moody horror story with an ominous tone? An action-adventure that promises to move quickly enough to obscure any plot holes? This prepares the reader and sets up what to expect.

The ideal first line should do all these things:

Illuminate the theme of the book. This justifies the novel's very existence. Good luck with keeping something like this in, though, because so many readers today only pay attention to story and they want BOOMS in the opening scene, sigh.

Raise the first story question. This propels the reader forward because she wants to know the answer. Does Mary say "yes" to John's proposal, be it marriage or just living together? Does the cat catch the mouse, or does it succeed in getting under the house? A curious reader is a reader who continues to read. You must, however, make the reader care, or else the question is, "Who gives a hoot?" Momentum stays up because when you answer this story question, it raises the next story question. Note that this does not have to be a direct question. It can be implicit in the situation.

Establish the tone/mood, reveal the setting, and begin to develop the character(s) as someone interesting enough to spend 300 pages with.

Within this hook should lurk some form of the KEY to the story. Is the key a plot thing, or is it about the character's, well, character? This can be subtle or direct. Agatha Christie often put clear hints to the resolution of her mysteries in the first line or first few lines. Literary novels are notorious for this. If you can, provide the foundation for circularity or closure with the last line echoing this.

THIS IS WHY YOU DO NOT START WITH THE KILLING OR DRAGGING OF THE CORPSE OR WHATNOT. We don't yet know who we are supposed to root for, and it's boring to see the same beginning as so many other novels have. "Yeah, yeah," mutters the reader or viewer, "I get it, a murder. So WHY do we care, other than every man's death diminishes me and all that jazz?" Give us a few lines of the ordinary world so that we'll see why the murder disrupts the sleuth's life so much that he has to go investigate it.

I would caution you against a "frame" story, although those were immensely popular for years. I can't stand FRIED GREEN TOMATOES (one of my mother's faves and very big with her crowd), in part because both the novel and the film are frame stories that are simply not necessary and don't add anything for me. (I also hate the way they disposed of the abusive husband. It isn't even a little amusing.) On the other hand, a "looking back" sort of frame from a first-person narrator to establish why the tone is elevated although the narrative takes place while the POV character is still a child can work well. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and A SEPARATE PEACE work perfectly with this.

Don't forget about what you began the novel with. So many books now will have a REALLY EXCITING thing happen in the opening, only to abandon it entirely and never explain what it was about. A book starts out with a mugging or explosion, but it's not related to the main story of the book, just a way to throw the hero into a panic. Don't do this!

Anyhow . . . what are some of your favorite opening lines?

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