Continuing the “Back to Basics” series, I would like to use today’s post to focus on the opening lines of our novels. Yes, I know: I’m not exactly moving in order here; rather, I’m jumping around a bit, talking about research, submissions, writing to a certain length, etc. To be honest, I’m choosing my topics week to week, essentially on a whim. I also realize that opening lines is not exactly a new topic; we’ve touched on this before. And we will again, I’m sure. But today I would like to try talking about book and story openings in a slightly different way. I can never tell if using examples from my own work helps or not, but that’s what I’m going to do here. Hopefully they’ll serve as illustrations for what I’m trying to convey.
Let me begin with a confession: I obsess over the first lines of my books. I spend more time on those first few paragraphs than I do on just about any others in the book. Part of this is simply wanting to get it right, wanting those initial lines to be as close to perfect as possible. But part of it as well, is that I am often searching for the right voice for the new project. I don’t spend less time on subsequent sections of the book because I care less about them, but rather because I am, at that later point, more comfortable with the book, more familiar with the tone and with the personalities of my characters. For that reason, I often go back and rework the opening pages after the rest of the book is done. Why not write the opening pages last? I know some people who do just that. I can’t. Too compulsive. I have to have something written in my first chapter before I can move on to the next. But that’s just me. If you can work in a non-linear way, then yes, writing the opening last might work very well.
I think we can all agree on at least one of the things our opening lines are supposed to do. We want a book or story opening to grab hold of our readers and refuse to let go. We want it to make the reader say “Wow! I want to read more of this right now!” But there are so many ways to achieve that end. And so I would say that we also want our opening lines to introduce our book as accurately as possible. It needs to tell our readers something about what they can expect. Sure, it’s great to have lots of action in those opening pages. But if we’re writing a cozy, a car chase ending in a shootout with massive explosions might not be our best bet . . . Sometimes I try for excitement in those first pages. Sometimes I try for intriguing, even strange. There are different ways to draw in our readers, and which I choose is largely a function of what kind of book I’m writing and what I need to accomplish in my early chapters.
For instance, here is the opening paragraph of the first Thieftaker book (due out a little less than a year from now, in early May 2012):
Ethan Kaille eased his knife from the leather sheath on his belt as he approached Griffin’s Wharf, the words of a warding spell on his lips. He had sweated through his linen shirt, and nearly through his waistcoat, as well. His leg ached and he was breathing hard, gasping greedily at the warm, heavy air hanging over Boston on this August eve. But he had chased Daniel Folter this far — from the Town Dock to Purchase Street, over cobblestone and dirt, past storefronts and homes and pastures empty save for crows and grazing cows — and he wasn’t about to let the lad escape him now.
I start with Ethan, my lead character, and by the time you’re done with the first sentence you know that he is the kind of man who carries a blade and casts magical spells. This is a character driven series, and so I wanted to introduce him first thing. It’s also a historical, and you see that in sentence two, when I describe his garb. The third sentence puts us in Boston. The fourth does more to ground us in time and setting and also establishes the action that will drive the rest of the scene. There is tension in the scene and the promise of more to come. But there is also information that lets my readers know immediately what kind of book they can expect.
Here are the opening graphs of the second Thieftaker:
He heard the man’s footsteps first, boot heels clicking loudly on the cobblestone street leading toward Clarke’s Shipyard. A moment later, Tanner came into view, a bulky shadow against the faint, distant glow of the comfortable homes of Boston’s North End. He walked swiftly, his hands buried in his pockets. Occasionally he glanced back over his shoulder.
The man passed Ethan Kaille without noticing him, though Ethan stood just off the lane, so close that he could have grabbed Tanner’s arm as he hurried by. With the concealment spell Ethan had placed on himself a few minutes earlier he could have planted himself in the middle of the street and Tanner would have walked into him before realizing he was there. Still, Ethan breathed into the crook of his arm, so as not to give himself away with a puff vapor in the cool autumn air.
Notice that this passage does much the same thing as the first one I showed. We know quickly that Ethan can do magic, that he is watching a mysterious man, that we are in Boston at a time when the streets were cobblestone, that it is fall. I hint at the action to come, but I also fill in a lot of information. The Thieftaker books are stand alone mysteries, and I want my readers to be able to start the series anywhere along the way. So my openings will all seek to do similar things, but, I hope, without seeming repetitive.
What about a different type of book. Here are the opening sentences from the book I’m working on now:
Two drops of blood. One on the bottom stair, glistening on the brick, red on red. The other on the cement landing by the front door.
They were small; it would have been so easy to miss them, to walk past them and into the house without noticing. But having seen them, she couldn’t look away, and she couldn’t take another step.
She stood rooted to the walkway, a paper sack filled with groceries cradled in one arm, an oversized bottle of Australian Shiraz in the other hand, her bag slung over her shoulder. And she stared at the blood.
This is a contemporary urban fantasy, and while the POV character here is one who will play a huge role in the story, I want her to remain slightly shadowed for the time-being (never mind why ). I also don’t start in with the magic right away. I let that happen gradually, too, in part because my other POV character doesn’t do magic, doesn’t even believe it exists. I give enough information that you can tell this is happening in today’s world. Other than that, though, I focus on exactly what my character is focused on: the blood, and the mystery of where it might be from. It is jarring, shocking even, out of place. It has that impact on my character, and hopefully it will make my reader want to read on.
My last example is quite different from the others. It is from the second volume of another contemporary urban fantasy series (the first volume has not yet been published). It is written from the perspective of a crazy man, the father of my protagonist, actually. Here, I am not looking to inform my readers, but rather to intrigue them, to draw them into the story with imagery and all that it implies. It is meant to be disjointed, and yet also compelling. To be honest, I don’t know if it works, because up until now, no one other me has ever read it:
It burns and burns and burns, a pain he can’t salve, a fire he can’t extinguish. White, yellow, red, orange, white. Shades of pale blue sometimes, but then white again. Always white. White hot. Pure white. White for wedding gowns and babies’ diapers and clean sheets on a crib. White. Like blank paper. And then it burns, again. Brown giving way to black, which comes from the yellow and orange and red and pale blue; flame creeping like spilled blood, spreading like a stain.
The land rolls downward from his chair, baked and dry, burning and empty. But also full, if only one knows how to look at it. The rising swirls of red dirt. Red-tailed hawks turning on splayed wings. Jack rabbits and coyotes, watchful and tense, death and survival hanging between them.
There are hints here — the pain he feels burning inside him is tied to family: wedding dresses, diapers, crib sheets. He lives at the edge of a desert, and sees in that landscape a reflection of the tragedy that has touched his own life. But other than that, we don’t know much. Hopefully, though, readers will want to read on. The book revolves around a mystery that involves this man and his violent past, but since his mind is muddled, so are the hints I am giving my readers. To some degree I want them scrambling to keep up, at least at first.
All of these openings have certain things in common, but aside from the first two Thieftaker passages, they are also distinct from one another. Different books, different types of stories — different openings. There are as many ways to reach out and grab a reader as there are stories to tell. The old “There is no right way to do this” disclaimer is especially true here. Your opening lines are going to be as unique and personal as the books you’re writing. I can’t tell you how to write the first pages. Yes, you want to engage your readers, but there are so many ways to do that: shock them, excite them, intrigue them, make them laugh. Or try some combination of these. Make certain though that your opening is representative of the rest of your book. And look for ways to begin informing your readers of the important things they need to know, at least for the first chapters.
So, who has an opening to share with the group? No more than 100 words or so, please.David B. Coe