Sunday, May 30, 2010

Openings and First Lines

I'm sure everyone and anyone who is in publishing or wants to get publishing will tell you you have to hook the reader/agent/editor from thew first sentence.

And if you didn't get the memo: You have to hook the reader/agent/editor from the first sentence.

This sounds hard, doesn't it? I know a lot of new authors who come into the game, take one look at that and think action. Action, they assume, is the best way to catch a reader's interest from the get-go and hold on tight. Now, I won't deny that this works, but there are so many other ways to hold onto a reader from the beginning. Voice, is a great one. Actions, yes, but sometimes just plain weirdness will keep someone reading.

Let's look at some famous openings, shall we?

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.
-Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger

Why is this opening line engaging? What about it makes you want to continue reading? Well, for one, it's a terribly long run-on sentence. But this is a run-on because it's part of the character's voice. Almost instantly we see the kind of person that Holden is in this opening. It also leads a bit of mystery. What is "it" and why would we want to hear about it? There are specifically placed words that allow us a glimpse of what kind of character we will be spending this novel with. "Lousy childhood" "How my parents were occupied and all before they had me" "David Copperfield kind of crap." Each little hint is a reflection of his character. None of these words are acceidental.

Which is very important when discussing the development of character: Nothing should be accidental. If your character compares his father to Elvis, there has to be a reason in that.

All children, except one, grow up.
-Peter Pan, JM Barrie

I LOVE this opening. Why is it effective? Because of the mystery! Six words and you're (or at least I am) instantly hooked! All children grow up, that goes without saying. So who is this child, this ONLY child that won't grow up? What makes it so he can't grow up? What about him is so different from other children?

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
-I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith

Why does this opening work? Because it's just plain weird. There's not much voice in this, not much mystery. (Other than why would you be sitting in a kitchen sink?) But it's not what you expected. When you're writing something, you should be sitting at a desk, or maybe on the couch, or even on the floor, but a kitchen sink? Suddenly, there's an urge to read on, to understand the why.

So there we go. We have the three characteristics that make up great opening lines: Mystery, voice and just plain weirdness. But, of course, what's a good line followed by a good second or third? The sole purpose of the first line is t0 make them read the second, then the third and so on. Though the whole novel is the most important part, trying to grab the reader from right away is never a bad thing.

"You're not going to like what I have to say, but you are about to die a horribly painful death. Within moments, someone will swing in through the window and shoot you four times in the chest. Should that fail, several men are hiding behind your sofa and desk, and will engage in hand to hand combat. Should you defeat them, it will not matter, because by then the undetectable poison leeking in through your air vents will shut down your heart and lungs successively."

I turn up from the card, eye the window, then the couch and finally the air vent. Moments before the glass shatters I can't help but think, 'Mom has to find a new way of wishing me happy birthday.'

This is an opening that I wrote not long ago, for no other reason than I like writing openings. Looking at the first line: You're not going to like what I have to say, but you are about to die a horribly painful death. Not a bad opening sentence, but not "wow" factor. The only thing that makes it better is the rest of the paragraph, followed by my main character's commentary on this seemingly inevitable chain of events.

But did the first line do its job? Did it make you read the second? And that second line, did it make you read the third? Then it succeeded in its job.

Your first line doesn't have to be action packed, or filled to the brink with voice or mystery. Trust me, a powerful first line helps like you wouldn't believe, but it won't sell your book. But if you're first line just doesn't cut it, it may cause that reader/editor/agent to put down your book.

First lines are really not easy for a lot of people, so I suggest practicing by just picking a random subject and writing a line about it. Or finding a great voice and just trying it out.

First lines can be really fun when you get the hang of them. So go! Go, go, go and practice!



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