“The moon rose in the south, silhouetting the three weary men running over the barren plain.”
I like opening lines. Scratch that. I love opening lines. One could even make the argument that I’m a little obsessed with it. I am the reader your editor warned you about, the one who picks up a book, reads the opening line and makes a snap judgment to either buy the book or put it back on the shelf and walk away.
I’m not exaggerating by much either. These days my time is precious and it takes a lot to just get my attention, let alone keep it. As a reader I’m not shy about this, so as I writer I get the importance of that first moment someone spends with your writing.
The opening line is a gatekeeper. If a reader gets past the cover (which authors have little to no control over), or the title and back blurb (about the same in terms of how much choice we have in those) they’ll crack open a book and…
Angels weep, or sing. *grins*
There are two books I always point at when people ask me about my favorite opening lines. The first is J.V. Jones’ novel The Barbed Coil – “The one who would soon be king ran naked through the woods.” *laughs* I mean, come on! How do you not want to read a book that starts like that?
The second line is from David Eddings’ The Diamond Throne and even just cracking the book to get this line right makes me want to read the series all over again.
“It was raining. A soft, silvery drizzle sifted down out of the night sky and wreathed around the blocky watchtowers of the city of Cimmura, hissing in the torches on each side of the broad gate and making the stones of the road leading up to the city shiny and black. A lone rider approached the city.”
I have a harder time explaining why this one grabs me so hard. To start, it’s not even really the opening line, because there’s a prologue before this with a little history lesson. But in all honesty I don’t think I read that first. I think I skipped straight to chapter one and then went back to read it once I’d gotten sucked in.
The opener sets the tone for a book. There are as many ways to do this as there are to write books. Some people (myself included) are a fan of starting in medias res – which means “into the middle of things.” I like throwing my readers into the deep end and seeing if they can swim out. *grins* It’s a fine line though, because I’ve read books myself that started right in the middle of an action scene and I was so completely lost it made getting into the story difficult.
People will also tell you how not to start stories. If you’ve been paying any kind of attention by now you know I’m not a big fan of someone telling me what I can’t do. So I say, write the story however you feel like writing it. With the caveat that you do it well. Especially if you’re going to use something that’s been thrown out there a lot, in that case you’ve got to find a way to approach it that’s going to make it special.
There are three classic mistakes I see in new authors and openers. 1) Too much backstory – there’s very little place for backstory in the first page of your novel. At the most, it should be a line or two and it should focus either on something plot related or your main character. 2) Too much description – usually of the characters. A few pertinent details are fantastic, but don’t give me the BOLO description in the first few paragraphs. I care more about why your heroine is Jello-wrestling under an assumed name than I care what color her eyes are. And 3) Too many characters – this usually pertains to names being thrown around willy-nilly in the first five pages. While it’s great to get to know people, I don’t like seeing ten different names flying at me while I’m still trying to get into the story.
Finally, let me leave you with this. Don’t be afraid to axe your opener and start all over again. Sometimes you get the beginning of a story written only to discover you didn’t really start until page 20. Sometimes you’ll come up with something later in the book that would make a fabulous opener. Don’t get so stuck with the idea of starting a book right where you did that you lose sight of the fact that this is the most important part of your whole novel. This is the part that will get you an agent, the one that will get you an editor, and the one that will get you readers.
So what is your favorite opening line? (If you’re going to post someone else’s work make sure you include the author and the book title and no more than a few lines from the book.) Why is it your favorite?