Beginnings

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Everyone knows that a good opening can make or break a submission.  With busy agents and editors getting literally hundreds of submissions a week, you want to be sure to grab their attention right away and never surrender it. I hear far too often in pitches, “but the story really starts….”  In the famous words of Lewis Carroll, “Begin at the beginning and go on until you come to the end, then stop.”  It seems so obvious, and yet, beginnings are not always so easy to identify.  Do you start with murder or motive?  Action or voice?  Scene-setting or dialogue?

While there are no hard and fast rules, I’m going to give you some general dos and don’ts.  Remember, anything done amazingly well can break the rules.  However, it’s much easier for a New York Times bestseller of years and years experience to get away with.  All that said, it’s a good idea to at least be aware of the “rules” (more like guidelines really) so that if you decide to tread all over them you know to do it with some razzle-dazzle.

Don’t

-Start with omniscient third person narration from the point of view of a disembodied (or even embodied) godlike figure thinking deep philosophical thoughts.  The reader wants to be grounded, to immediately identify with characters and situations, to be viscerally drawn into the story.  It is very unlikely that this sort of opening will accomplish that.

Do

-Begin with the voice of one of the viewpoint characters.  Sometimes a prologue is necessary, particularly in mystery/suspense, but most experts will tell you that if the story can stand without the prologue it should be lopped off.  Prologues are out of sync with the rest of the story, set apart because they take place in a different time or a different voice than the rest of the narrative.  Often, it’s in the villain’s point of view, which might, if done well, be intriguing, but it might also, if he’s in the midst of some ghastly deed, turn the reader right off.  It’s not representative of the main portion of the story, and thus the reader will have to reset mentally just like the story does with Chapter 1.  So, generally, for flow and to keep the reader’s attention riveted, it’s a good idea to start directly  with the main characters.  Make us care and identify right from word one.

Don’t

-Start with long-winded description.  Absolutely don’t make the mistake of many first-time writers and use two adjectives for every noun.  Make sure you’re concise and precise.  Each word should be chosen with care and two should never be used where one will do.  If you are going to start with description, make it count.  I offer up as an example of a description that works the opening of Wm. Mark Simmons’ DEAD ON MY FEET, “The beaded curtains clicked and rattled like finger bones as I brushed them aside.”  Yes, he had me at “finger bones.”

Do

-Begin with action or dialogue or things that make you go “hmmm.”  As an example, Rachel Caine’s forthcoming Morganville Vampires novel GHOST TOWN begins: “Oh, this doesn’t sound like a good idea,” Claire said.

I see trouble on the horizon…I’m immediately intrigued.  Yes, smooth-sailing is never interesting.  Driving uneventfully down a highway, staring at a field of grass, watching a cat in a window…not so fascinating until the car is run off the road, the grass starts to rustle menacingly as the sky darkens, the cat smiles a Cheshire grin….

Don’t

-Talk directly to the reader.  We don’t want the story told to us, we want to live it.  Having the reader speak to us makes it a tale instead of an experience that we’re going through with the characters.

Do

-Make us laugh or gasp or wonder, but make us feel.  What your opening shouldn’t do is leave the reader cold.  We shouldn’t be able to take it or leave it.  We should be desperate to know more.  We should care.

Again, these are suggestions rather than hard and fast rules.  I can think of wonderful novels that have begun with prologues, and I love the old noir detective novels that completely brake down the third wall between the narrator and the reader.  However, they’re tricky things which should be carefully considered and artistically done.  There’s almost nothing so outré that it can’t be done if it’s done brilliantly.

Here are some other good examples of first lines that intrigue right from the start, some of which even break the rules:

DD Barant’s DYING BITES:“I think about monsters a lot.”

Gwen Hunter (a.k.a. Faith Hunter) from ASHES TO ASHES: “I invited death into my home.”

Diana Pharaoh Francis’ THE CIPHER: “There were some days that deserved to be drowned at birth and everybody sent back to bed with a hot brandy, a box of chocolates, and a warm, energetic companion. Today was definitely one of those days.

Rob Thurman’s ROADKILL: “I’d died six months ago.”

Charles Davis’s ANGEL’S REST: “People said he was crazy.”

Misty Massey’s work-in-progress THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN: “The patter of his dripping blood echoed like drumbeats, so loud he was sure his pursuers could hear.”

(and because I apparently have a thing about blood <g>)

David B . Coe’s THE HORSEMEN’S GAMBIT: “First blood, the rules said.”

Of course, we’re talking about more than just great first lines here, but it all starts with a single sentence.

I’d love to hear your own fave first lines or pet peeves!

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29 comments to Beginnings

  • Love this! I’ve just started writing on a new novel after a false start and your advice is timely. Thank you!

  • Just changed my opening sentence 🙂

  • “She scowled into her glass of orange juice.” – Robin McKinley, THE BLUE SWORD

    I like a line that sticks with me evey when I don’t have the book in hand. 🙂

  • Lucienne Diver

    Another great first line, from Joshilyn Jackson’s GODS IN ALABAMA: “There are Gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel’s, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus.”

  • I’m usually great with first lines. My own rule has always been, interest them with the first sentence or two, grab ’em with the first paragraph. Then again, with my early track record with writing, I got a lot of practice writing opening scenes… :\

    Oddly, one of my favorite opening lines was from Shadowspawn by Andrew J Offutt: “The first thing I noticed about him, just the first impression you understand, was that he couldn’t be a poor man.”

    The rest went on with: “Or boy, or youth, or whatever he is. Not with all those weapons on him.”

    I immediately wanted to know who he was about to describe: Hanse Shadowspawn, Andrew’s Thieves’ World character.

    And one of my current favorites (and this was from the first chapter, not the preface): “The day started quietly, which, as it turned out, was not so much ironic as completely misleading.”

    Knew from that one sentence that I was about to read a tale with a certain tongue in cheek attitude/voice, sort of like Pratchett. The character was going to be witty and droll and dumped into some sort of situation that there was no way he could have planned for. Yeah, it’s AJs. And I’m nearly done with it and it’s been awesome.

    Maybe I’ll post a couple of my own in a bit. I started my current WIP with action and one of my backburner projects with a tiny bit of nervous intrigue.

  • I love opening lines. As a writer, I love nailing one that I know will capture a reader. As a reader, I love being captured. Here’s one from Jack Chalker’s *Lilith: A Snake in the Grass* — “The little man in the synthetic tweed jacket didn’t look like a bomb.”

  • Lucienne Diver

    Another favorite opening of mine, from Lloyd Alexander’s WESTMARK, “Theo, by occupation, was a devil.”

    To continue: “That is, he worked as apprentice and general servant to Anton, the printer. Before that, he was lucky enough to be an orphan, for the town fathers of Dorning prided themselves in looking after their needy. So, instead of sending him away to a King’s Charity House, where he could be made miserable, they arranged the same for him locally.”

  • >>Make us laugh or gasp or wonder, but make us feel. What your opening shouldn’t do is leave the reader cold. We shouldn’t be able to take it or leave it. We should be desperate to know more. We should care.

    You nailed it. Thank you Lucienne.

    Mmmmm…
    Kim Harrison’s Once Dead, Twice Shy:
    Everyone does it. Dies I mean.

  • Glad you liked it, Daniel! The original version of that opening line was, “Considering my life was about to get smashed into unrecognizable pieces, the day had started pretty quietly.” Still not sure which I prefer.

  • John Varley’s Steel Beach:

    “In five years, the penis will be obsolete”, said the salesman.

  • I fear this book is out of print now, but one of my favorite opening lines ever comes from Tom Deitz’ Soulsmith.

    “Dion Welch read auguries in rock&roll like some people read Tarot cards, and in very much the same manner.”

    How could you read that and not start listening to the radio in a brand new way yourself? 😀

  • […] 22, 2010 I hang out over at Magical Words and a recent post on Beginnings by Lucienne Diver, Literary Agent at The Knight Agency, got me thinking about opening […]

  • Alan Kellogg

    I don’t usually notice opening sentences, they just don’t get my attention. I go with the first couple of paragraphs before I decide if a work is worth my time or not. Yes, the first sentence in the first paragraph of Ian R. Macdonald’s “Recrossing the Styx” did get me to read the first paragraph, but it was the last sentence, “It’s easy to understand why those who can afford her tarrifs carry on cruising until — and long after — death.”, in that paragraph that got me to continue.

  • Great post. Thanks, Luciennne. Tell me: do you think a writer should spent a lot of time nailing a great first line before moving on, or do you think there’s a value in plowing into things in the first draft and then creating a powerful first line than in some way resonates with the story to come?

  • Sarah

    Not to make light of Lucienne’s post, but the first line I still remember most is from a children’s book. “In an old house in Paris, all covered in vines, lived twelve little girls, in two straight lines. The youngest of these was Madeleine.” The idea of Paris and vine covered houses fascinated me as a child and the two straight lines added a little touch of potential horror and signaled that these were not ordinary little girls.

  • Lucienne Diver

    Sarah, I agree with you entirely…the conformity of that creeped me out right from the get-go!

    Edmund, I don’t think an author should spend a tremendous amount of time working on a killer first line. I definitely encourage authors to write forward and then go back and revise…and revise again (like AJ has in the example he and Daniel Davis give above). In judging contests, I’ve seen instances where someone has clearly spent 90% of his or her time sharpening the first sentence or paragraph and 10% on the rest of the work. When I sat down to write this blog, I looked through quite a few books on my shelves that I adore, surprised they didn’t have first lines that I could use as examples. Didn’t make me love them any less. Agents can’t sell something on the basis of a great beginning alone, but it does up the chances of us reading on and falling for the work as a whole.

  • Lucienne Diver

    So you all can see how well I did (or didn’t do), I’ll throw myself under the bus with my first lines from Vamped and Revamped here. (My protagonist, Gina, actually starts every book with her rules for something or other, because she’s opinionated like me, but these are the first lines from the first chapters of each.)

    Vamped: “I’m here to tell you, rising from the dead just purely sucks.”
    *
    *
    Revamped: “I sat in the middle of spook central’s briefing room, staring at the sorry state of my manicure rather than the blah-brown walls.”

  • Lucienne> I think both of those are great. They tell me a lot about the character, and I know right away what kind of girl she is. The voice is distinct, which I find cool. 🙂

    I remember in college spending quite a bit of time in a lit class talking about “Call me Ishmael.” (The Far Side cartoon that had Melville writing, with all the scraps of paper on the floor “Call me Todd, “Call me Joe,” all in crumpled bits always made me laugh.) “Call me Ishmael” my prof said, “is assigning identity, not telling us his name. We don’t know if that is his name or not, and in fact it may not be, because this is just what we *call* him.” I was fascinated by that, though the book almost killed me. Great story. Don’t EVER want to read it again. I was quite proud that I actually finished the whole thing. (I admit, the sperm whale squeezing scene creeped me out.)

    I don’t remember a lot of first lines that drew me in. Or maybe I just don’t because I’m trying to. I do also like the first lines of the “Canterbury Tales.” “When april with its showers sweet…” Then again, he’s starting with a lot of description, so I don’t know if he’d get published today. 🙂 But how can you resist an author who tells you “this story is kind of dirty, so if you don’t like that thing, turn a few pages further on and find a nicer one…”?

  • R.O. Kashmir

    “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu has always stood out for me for that opening. From the first time I read it that line has always set my imagination into over-drive. Made me crave more. And not just to read more, but to also create more. Is it strange for a sci-fi writer to love the horror of Lovecraft so much?

  • Tom G

    Like Alan K above, I don’t usually pay much attention to first lines in novels, so I have no favorites. I reviewed my many WIP, and found only two that might fit.

    My memorial service was at high noon, scheduled to ensure I did not attend. – Coeur de Sade, Urban Fantasy

    Blood – that sweet scent revved up my heartbeat. – Primary Urges, Urban Fantasy

    Both of those are in my Black Heart same series. The first book in the series doesn’t really have a great first line. It once did, but I’ve changed it. What was a thinking? LOL

  • NotACat

    The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault. Blood Rites, Jim Butcher.

    Which come to think of it is also a candidate for best last line also:

    “Hey. Why did you get large breed Puppy Chow?”

  • Mikaela

    This is from my latest WIP, changed this morning 🙂

    The pounding awoke me.

  • Here are some of my best ones, I think. The second is a novel, the rest are short stories. But, after reading your post, I didn’t post about 3 of my other ones. This is definitely something to remember in revisions, if not in the initial writing phrase. Thanks for the reminder!

    From The Nanite Chaser:
    Derek Daniels was looking for trouble.

    From On common Ground:
    Grace pulled her pistol and kicked open the door to the convenience store, stepping through.

    From A God Am I:
    No angels sang to my mother the night I was born.

    From So Much Going For Him:
    Mark stood in his living room, looking down at the dead body lying at his feet.

  • Here are a few of mine, from a couple of works-in-progress…

    On a stormy night in August, Étienne Dupree crawled out of the swamp.

    Dana Riatti yanked off her earphone and slammed it onto her desk.

    …And a couple of pieces I’ve been shopping around:

    “Good morning, Étienne,” the apartment said in its pleasant contralto. “You’ve got a new message!”

    Dad was climbing the wall again.

  • rexjameson

    I pounded the desk with the fury of a thousand crazed weasels when I realized just how terrible my first line was. “He was just sitting there? Who is going to read that?”

    I deleted the file and started over.

    The devil stood over his victim, leering viciously at the yellow blood still pouring from wounds that would never heal – not in this life or the next.

    I rested back against my chair, glad that I had read the article on Magical Words, but a small voice in my head just wouldn’t shut up about something. I removed a few barriers that I had erected long ago to ensnare this foul critic, so that he might voice his futile opposition to my obvious brilliance.

    “Oh, that’s immensely better.” The voice remarked, as snarky as he had ever been. “Now you just need to figure out how to connect this line to the rest of your story about a celibate monk who has been thrown into a TV sitcom with George Lopez.”

    “Shut up, you spawn of satan!”

    P.S. Thanks for the article 😉

  • […] hang out over at Magical Words and a recent post on Beginnings by Lucienne Diver, Literary Agent at The Knight Agency, got me thinking about opening […]

  • Young_Writer

    Thanks, just finished writing my first line. I changed it after reading this:
    Annalisa and I hated winter. But here we were, prepping for it. In any normal town, this would mean buying coats and boots. Maybe a cute scarf. But if we wore anything cute- even makeup- we could die. So instead, we were checking locks at my house.
    I’ll probably make it better once I started editting. A lot better 🙂