Sunday, September 11, 2011

Opening Lines

As my friend Fraulein Maria says, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”

I was recently rereading A TALE OF TWO CITIES by Charles Dickens, and was blown away (as always) by the opening line. You’ve probably heard it: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” etc., etc. In the history of literature that has to be one of the best first lines ever written.* I mean, the sheer physical size of the sentence (119 words) is enough to catch the reader’s attention. Then, on top of that, Dickens covers every emotion on the spectrum by pointing out that for every good thing that exists there is a dark side (Luke…I am your faaaather…) working against it. Glad it’s the “spring of hope?” Guess what? It’s also the “winter of despair.” Pretty excited that we have “everything before us?” We don’t. We have “nothing before us.” Maybe Dickens was Taoist, because he totally nailed the whole yin and yang thang (that's right, I said it).

(As an aside, Dickens uses a concept called anaphora in that opening line. I tried to work in this vocabulary wonder in a clever way, but alas, fell short.)

I agonize over first lines. I write them and rewrite them, knowing full well I’ll just be going back in revisions and rewriting them again. It’s like the hook line in a query letter; your one shot to win someone’s attention. It’s not only the reader’s first taste of the story; it’s the starting point for which the remainder of the manuscript is framed. It’s your first impression, your pick-up line, your hope that they’re interested enough to learn a little bit more.

So how do you make an opening line catchy without being kitschy? How do you tease, but not appease? (Ok, ok, enough.) There are a million and a half ways to do this (I’ve counted). I don’t claim to be an expert on first lines by any means, but I LOVE to read them, so here are a few themes meant to inspire:

1. Inviting the reader in. A “Come join me whilst I tell you a tale,” kind of opening.

2. A “We’re-catching-this-story-halfway-through” news report. Stating the action as though the reader’s been thrust right into the thick of things. (The opening of the HATE LIST by Jennifer Brown is a pretty shocking example)

3. A sense of foreboding. “In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind.” – GRACELING by Kristin Cashore.

4. Something sarcastic and biting. My favorite example of this is from CATCHER IN THE RYE (J.D. Salinger): “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me…”

5. An important memory. “I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.” SHIVER by Maggie Stiefvater.

6. Something shocking, off the wall, or intriguing, such as “The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.” – THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by Patrick Ness.

7. A funny start is always good in my opinion. See the opening of WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON, or anything by John Green, really.

8. A really surprising wham! Pow! Zap! kind of line. Bullets flying. Light sabers crashing. You get the idea.

9. Dialog. I always feel like immediately I’m part of the conversation when a story opens with dialog. Love this one: “There are places you can go,” Ariana tells him, “And a guy as smart as you has a decent chance of surviving to eighteen.” – UNWIND by Neal Shusterman.

10. Or you can do what I did. After five hundred rewrites, go for simple: “Beth and Ryan were holding hands.” Yup. That’s the first line to ARTICLE 5. Earth-shattering, I know.

So, these are a few of the things I think about when writing/revising my opening lines. I hope they help; there’s nothing more satisfying than feeling like you finally found the right key to open your front door.

*To clarify, I love it; therefore, it is one of the best lines ever written in the history of literature.


Petra @ Safari Poet said...

I like your first line. Six words and I'm already conjuring an image in my mind. That doesn't always happen to me, but I love when it does. The picture isn't complete yet, so I only have the basic outline of two people and a blank background, but that will come. I rather image conjuring than earth-shattering. I'm looking forward to finishing the picture and reading all the lines after that :-)

elizabethreinhardt said...

First lines are so hard to write! Sometimes I think I wrote a clever one, and I panic! If I think it's clever, am I actually being cheesy and smug? Or is it truly good? It's hard to hit on a good one!

I like holding's very Grimm fairy tale; if they're doing it for comfort, of course! If it's romance, though, that's nice, too!

Colette Ballard said...

Nice post, Kristen!
I've been lucky enough to have had a peek at Kristen's ARC and i can attest that the first line is great! Combined with the next sentence and the rest of that first paragraph totally hooks you!!! I can't wait to read the rest!! Give the people more, Kristen: )

Jus Accardo said...

I always feel so much pressure when writing first lines! I like the ones that drop us off right into the action, the shocking ones, and the simple ones that paint a powerful picture. Hand holding is a great way to do that!

Looking forward to reading ARTICLE 5!

Jen Daiker said...

This was fabulous!!! I've never thought about what it takes to get a first line, but without realizing it I'm one that takes weeks to come up with the first line. I know how important is, how it grabs the reader to continue! So tough but I love what you've written here!!!

FABULOUS BLOG! Can't wait to return!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for sharing. First lines are so important and hard to get right. You've given us a lot of good examples depending on the genre we're writing. Thanks so much.

Juliemybird said...

My favorite first line of all time and ever is, "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink," from I Capture the Castle. Oh, how I love that book.

And, um, yeah, I'm drooling over Article 5, regardless of the first line (which I quite like). :)

Kurt Hampe said...

I've alwasy been partial to, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." Interestingly, some of the best narrative opening lines are often "telling."

I've had the pleasure of having two stories of mine spring entirely from an opening line. In one case "It was the pink paint that gave Paul the idea." was just a sentence I dreamed up, but it led to a short story that became a full-length middle-grade, SHADOW SPACE, with a new opening line, "One thing after another is a stupid way to run the universe."

Kristen Simmons said...

Petra - as always, I love your comments. Thanks for the encouragement and the support, and as always, for stopping by. I hope you enjoy A5!

Elizabeth - you read my mind. I think those thoughts all the time (hence the rewrites). Sometimes it helps to watch someone else read a line or two, to see their response as they read it. Sometimes that just makes me more nervous though. Sorry - I don't have any good advice for this, lol! Thanks for commenting, and thanks for the "holding hands" encouragement!

Collette - lol. You're funny. I hope the rest of the book holds up to your first paragraph review! Thanks!

Hi Jus! Thanks for the empathy, and the support! Can't wait to read your first line either!

Kristen Simmons said...

Jen - thanks for stopping by! First lines really do seem similar to pick-up lines to me. What's going to get you a second date? Have a great day, Kristen.

Natalie! Hello! And thank you for the validation. First lines are always so difficult for me (in case you couldn't tell, lol), but sometimes these strategies help. I hope they can help others, too.

Julie! That's a great first line! I'm wondering what YOUR first line is....

Kurt - Ohmygoodness I LOVE those opening lines! Ha! They're brilliant! Thanks for commenting!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Seriously? The opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities is really 119 words. Oh. Wow. I bet if I tried that, my sample pages would be rejected. ;)

Great examples. It's funny how some people love a book to start with dialogue, and others think it's an epic fail. I don't care either way.

lindsayaeh said...

your blogs are always so informative and provide a picture into your mind set. Makes me so excited to read your book!
And i love your first line. That simple sentence tells the reader so much about the story; and I like it because it is such a familiar feeling/experience to which the reader can relate and picture.

Bebe Willoughby said...

In the novel I'm writing, I keep coming back to the opening line and checking on it. Does it pull you into the story? I've rewritten it and rewritten it and the whole first page--mostly tightening. First lines are so important! In the bookstore, I often read the first page and that makes me decide whethertobuy the book. I love to take that risk.