Sunday, July 31, 2011

THE POWER OF THE FIRST LINE by R. ANN SIRACUSA

Today I'd like to welcome R. Ann Siracusa, who is writing about first lines.

“Common Wisdom” in the writing world claims the opening line sells your book and the closing line sells your next book.  Whether that wisdom is accurate or not, most writers seem to agree the first line of a novel is oh, so very important.  It can make or break your novel.
Think about it.  A reader wanders through the bookstore (or in this electronically oriented world, wanders through a website), spots a catchy cover, and picks up the book.  Or, perhaps, this reader goes directly to the shelves holding the desired genre and studies the titles and author’s names.  Next, read the cover blurb.  “Hmm.  That sounds interesting.”  And then…the reader opens the book and skims the first paragraph.
That’s when you have to hit ’em between the eyes.  Knock ’em dead.  It’s the first thing they read of the story itself, the first impression.  You’ve only got a few seconds to sink in your teeth.
It better be good.
If an author doesn’t make the effort to sculpt the words of the first line into a masterpiece, what level of attention has he/she taken with the key moments in the novel when interpretative pressure is at its peak, when capturing a complete fictional world is at its most pressing?  As one writer put it, “Screw up the opening; screw up the book.”
What to do and what not to do
So, how does a writer come up with the perfect first line?  I wish I knew.  If there was a failsafe formula, someone would be out there selling it and making a bundle.  Instead, there are a plethora of opinions and guidelines—things an author should and should not do—and those vary to some extent.  They all agree it should be intriguing and capture the reader’s interest.  It’s the how of it they disagree on.  Well, maybe not even the how, but more what is interesting and compels the reader to go on.
The line should:
● Be intriguing,
● Hint of things to come,
● Be compelling,
Establish an intriguing question that makes the reader want to find out more,
● Set the tone and flavor of the book, show what kind of book it is,
● Incorporate the mood or theme of the story.
It shouldn’t be:
● Bland or trite.
●An overused reference to the elements or time of the year.
If you choose to write about the weather, be careful.  You run the risk of inviting comparisons to “It was a dark and stormy night,” (Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s classic first line from his 1830 novel, PAUL CLIFFORD) and your book won’t stand a chance.
Here’s another version from Suzannah over at Write it Sideways, who lists what to do and not do in your opening lines.
What not to do in your opening line:
Dialogue.  Suzannah feels dialogue is all right somewhere on the first or second page, but not in the first line.  She feels the reader won’t know who’s speaking or care.
Excessive description.  Some description is good, but not when it’s long winded.  Skip the purple prose and opt for something more powerful.
Irrelevant information.  The first few lines of your story are crucial, so give your reader only important information.
Introduction of too many characters.  (I’m not sure how you introduce too many characters in one line, but I supposed it’s possible.)  Suzannah doesn’t like to be bombarded with the names of too many characters at once.  How is the reader supposed to keep them straight?
What you should do in your opening line:
Make your readers wonderPut a question in your readers’ minds.  What do those first lines mean?  What’s going to happen?  Intrigue with unanswered questions and they’ll keep reading.
Begin at a pivotal momentBy starting at an important moment in the story, the reader is more likely to want to continue so he or she can discover what will happen next.
Create an interesting pictureDescription is good when it encourages people to paint a picture in their minds.  Often, simple is best so it’s the reader who imagines a scene, instead of simply being told by the author.
Introduce an intriguing characterThe promise of reading more about a character you find intriguing will, no doubt, draw you into a story’s narrative.  Most often, this is one of the main characters in the book.
Start with an unusual situationShow us characters in unusual circumstances, and we’ll definitely be sticking around to see what it’s all about.
Begin with a compelling narrative voiceOpen your story with the voice of a narrator we can instantly identify with, or one that relates things in a fresh way.
Best First Lines of Novels
It’s always interesting to compare advice to actual first lines.  Below, I’ve listed a sampling of the first lines I’ve collected over the years; some good, some not-so-good.  There is quite a variety, and several are first paragraphs rather than first lines.  You’ll note quite a few were penned by mystery writer Dick Francis who, in my opinion, is one of the Masters of the First Line.
At the end, I’ve provided a link to the American Book Review List of the One Hundred Best First Lines in American literature.  I can’t say that a lot of those resonate with me.  Quite a few break one or two of Suzannah’s rules for what not to do.  Others, while they are first lines from great works of literature, aren’t exactly catchy as stand-alone opening lines.
I believe the first lines considered good and great may vary depending both time and location.  For example, in my opinion, British readers are generally much more tolerant of lengthy sentences and difficult words than American readers.  Although I haven’t really studied this topic in detail or done extensive research, it seems there are differences in “best first lines” in books written in earlier centuries (such as Daniel Defoe’s  Robinson Crusoe written in 1719) and more recent works, as well as differences between literary fiction and popular fiction.

Some Examples
The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
I have often recalled the morning when the first of the anonymous letters came.

Gone For Good by Harlan Coben
Three days before her death, my mother told me—they weren’t her last words but they were pretty close—that my brother was still alive.

Berg by Ann Quin
A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father.

Murder Is A Girl’s Best Friend by Amanda Matetsky (2004)
What’s black and white and red all over?  A blood-soaked newspaper—like the Monday, December 20, 1954 edition of The Daily Mirror I was reading that fateful morning.

Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler (2001)
Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.


Ten Big Ones by Janet Evanovich (2004)
The way I see it, life is a jelly doughnut.  You don’t really know what it’s about until you bite into it.  And then, just when you decide it’s good, you drop a big glob of jelly on your best T-shirt.

A Frolic Of His Own by William Gaddis (1994)
You get justice in the next world; in this world you have the law.

Space by James Michener (1982)
On 24 October 1944 Planet Earth was following its orbit about the sun as it had obediently done for nearly five billion years.  It moved at the stunning speed of sixty-six thousand miles an hour, and in doing so, created the seasons.  In the northern hemisphere it was a burnished autumn; in the southern, a burgeoning spring.

Death In A Sunny Climate by Diane Shalet (1994)
I sat at Michael’s desk, buried under a mountain of third-class mail.  October 7, 1983.  The second plea from Newsweek: YOU HAVE NOT RENEWED.  PLEASE TELL US WHY.  I answered for him: Because I died.  Then I signed his name.

Unnatural Causes by P. D. James (1967)
The corpse without hands lay in the bottom of a small sailing dinghy just within sight of the Suffolk coast.

A Certain Justice by P. D. James (1997)
Murderers do not usually give their victim notice.


“R” Is For Ricochet by Sue Grafton (2004)
The basic question is this: given human nature, are any of us really capable of change?  The mistakes other people make are usually patently obvious.  Our own are tougher to recognize.

The First Eagle by Tony Hillerman (1998)
The body of Anderson Nez lay under a sheet on the gurney, waiting.

The Medusa Game by Cindy Dees (2006)
The bus the terrorists had demanded was just pulling up in front of the Olympic village apartment building.  The casual observer wouldn’t see the dozen German army snipers lying in wait around the street, but Isabella Torres was no casual observer.

The Reef by Nora Robers (1998)
James Lassiter was forty years old, a well-built, ruggedly handsome man in the prime of his life, in the best of health.  In an hour he’d be dead.

Agnes And The Hitman by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer (2007)
One fine August evening in South Carolina, Agnes Crandall stirred raspberries and sugar in her heavy nonstick frying pan and defended her fiancé to the only man she’s ever trusted.  It wasn’t easy.

Risk by Dick Francis
Thursday, March 17, I spent the morning in anxiety, the afternoon in ecstasy, and the evening unconscious.

Fear No Evil by Allison Brennan (2007)
The sick and depraved had voted: death by stabbing.
“No.”
Kate Donovan’s whisper became a cry as she pocketed her cell phone, unable to respond to the text message her only remaining friend in the FBI had sent.

The Spiral Path by Mary Jo Putney (2002)
The trouble with reality was that it was so dammed real.

 
Articles on First Lines

First Line Literary Journal

How to write the first chapter of a novel



She appeared out of nowhere, blown into Red Gulch, a decaying mining town, on the crest of a desert breeze like the ever-present tumbleweeds that filled the empty streets in the blink of an eye.  Except everyone knew where tumbleweeds came from.
Brandon O’Donnell never figured out where Melody came from, but she captured his heart with her flaming red hair, hypnotic light-grey eyes, and intense but distant way of speaking.  As though, Brandon had thought for years, she knew a lot more than she let on.  Now, Brandon is about to find out how much more that really is.

ISBN # 978-1-934657-70-6
Format: e-Book; Length: 28k

9 comments:

  1. My favorite first line is from "To Sail Beyond the Sunset" by Robert A. Heinlein. Actually, it's the first paragraph.

    "I woke up in bed with a man and a cat. The man was a stranger; the cat was not."

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  2. Well researched, Ann. Thanks for all the info, especially the list of opening lines. I've been meaning to compile a similar list. Now I won't have to.

    Toni

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  3. Thanks for visiting Toni. I actually cut Ann's list by a couple of pages!

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  4. Thank you Ann, that was wonderful. I want to read all your examples. (Thank you Rochelle)

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  5. Dynamite. I've just begun a new story and will rewrite the opening line due to your excellent post. Thanks so much.

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  6. Thanks all. Be sure to check out the 100 best first lines -- I put the link in there. Some of them, in my book, aren't really that great. But what do I know? Ann

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  7. It's funny, but I rarely look at first lines when I pick up a book -- sometimes by the title, sometimes by the cover. Then I read the back if it's paperback and the flap if it's hard cover. If I open the book, I'll just open it randomly. Not that I don't think first lines and first paragraphs are critical. They are, but the inside has to be good too and sometimes I think we lose track of that in our obsession with making the beginning perfect.

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  8. Great post Ann!!!

    Lisa :)

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  9. P.A., Thanks for commenting. I gave some thought to what you said and decided I don't consciously pay attention to the first line, either. But the more intriguing it is, the more hooked I am on reading further. But I've read a lot of great books with first lines and paragraphs that break all the "should" rules, and they are still wonderful books. Not obsessing over any specific aspect of writing is good advice, and we all have to be true our own styles.

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