new beginnings

“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?

K.B. Wagers

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16 responses to “new beginnings

  1. A very important point to remember, all too often ignored once the writing process gets underway. I like that you suggested the opening could (and often should) be rewritten.
    I really want to read The Barbed Coil after that opening line. Marvelous. And Eddings, in my opinion, is highly underrated.

    Here’s one of my favorite:
    “Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.”

    Mervyn Peak’s Titus Groan (1946)

  2. It’s a toss up between the opening line of Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen. Because it always makes me laugh.

    “IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

    And my other favorite is the first line of The Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling.

    “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

    Granted, if I don’t like the first line I won’t read the book…or maybe I’ll read a paragraph to see if I change my mind but not normally lol. So I have a library full of opening line favorites.

  3. One of my favorite first lines is from Elizabeth Cunningham’s “Return of the Goddess – A Divine Comedy”.

    “She liked to make things: cookies, pie crust, Hallowe’en costumes, bread.”

    I’m not certain why I love it so much, but I think it has to do with tone, and the immediate sensibility of character. Also, the title of chapter one didn’t hurt – “Her Belly is the World” 😀

  4. I have a whole bunch of favorite first lines –

    Dickens from A Tale of Two Cities – It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, etc. etc. etc. – probably one of the longest first lines ever!.But it doesn’t just draw you into the story, it draws you into a world, of England and France, of rich and poor, of life and death, of heroism and honor. I love it.

    Austen from Persuasion – another very long first line which I won’t repeat here. Much funnier, but again draws you into a whole new world. Perhaps not new for contemporary readers of Austen, but for us? Definitely.

    But my very favorite? From Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Love in the Time of Cholera – maybe what got me started writing magic realism: It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.

    I love this line, as I love all of Marquez’s work, because there’s the tiniest hint of magic in it, an anticipation that I can’t resist – why bitter almonds? cyanide? poison? and then there is unrequited love – and the inevitability of it’s fate. Hmmmm, might reread that book soon.

    Kate

    • Kate – I had weird dejavu when I read that opening line. I’m wondering if we’ve talked about this once before. 😀

  5. I mostly write screenplays, and we spend a lot of time on the first 1o pages, the first page and the first line, because we are trying to catch the interest of a studio reader, someone who will suggest our screenplay to the producer who will buy it. Everything hinges on grabbing the readers attention and holding it.

    Having said that, I, oddly, have chosen the following from a stage play I am writing–my first! 🙂

    And, as usual, I am not following instructions, in stead of a line, I offer the first short scene. One that I love.

    Will You Be Staying For Supper by Wally Lane
    (a stageplay in process) ( I’m not done yet)

    ACT 1

    The stage lights come up on an early summer day, mid-morning, at the edge of Yazoo City near the train station. It’s 1968.

    A sign reads: MALLORY CHICKEN FARMS

    A towhead, William Robert O’Neal, seven year old, barefoot, wearing bib-overalls, pulls back the rubbers of a homemade slingshot and takes aim.

    He lets the rock in the slingshot pocket fly…

    Glass SHATTERS! (off stage)

    WILLIAM ROBERT
    ”And another damned Mallory bites the dust!”

    The boy reloads, aims, fires!

    Glass SHATTERS!

    WILLIAM ROBERT
    “And another damned Mallory bites the dust!”

    A train whistle SOUNDS in the distance.

    The boy looks in the direction of the whistle and sprints off, stuffing the slingshot into the hip pocket of the overalls.

    THE STAGE GOES BLACK

  6. My favorite first line has to be from Jim Butcher’s Blood Rites: “The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.” That one line tells you everything you need to know about Harry.

    • You know, I’ve never read the Harry Dresden books, but everyone keeps telling me I should. *laughs* From the sounds of it they’re right!

  7. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin. My soul.” by Vladimir Nabakov is, of course, from his famous book— Lolita.
    It immediately paints a sensual canvas for me , reveals a male POV, and introduces first person story telling – somewhat intimate for a lengthy novel.

    Nevertheless, it drew me in many years ago when I read it the first time, and again, when I reread just recently.

    eden

  8. Late to the party. So sorry. Two of my favorites:

    “The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.” – It by Stephen King

    “A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.” Dune by Frank Herbert

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