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.
-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.
-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.
-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.”
-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….
-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.
-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!