Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Thursday, January 26, 2006

CRAFT: Great Opening Lines for Novels

Name your favorite writing periodical, instructor, or mentor and you'll find that among all the other gems handed to you is the advice to write a great opening line. If not opening line, then at least opening paragraph.

What makes a killer opening?
I'm trying to figure that out myself.

Mostly, however, I think it's one or more of the following. Of course unlike salt or cayenne pepper, more really IS better, so if you can do all the the following, you, too, will have a killer opening...
  1. Sets the tone for the book. Funny if the book is funny, gritty if the book is gritty. If you're writing something with a humorous slant and you can make the reader laugh at the first sentence, you've got the reader hooked.
  2. Sets the scene. Where are the characters? What are they doing? You'd be surprised at how many books start out with a sentence about the weather. It was a dark and stormy night... But in many stories, this actually works. I'm not saying not to start with the weather, but if you do, make sure it sets the mood and scene. A very good example of one that works is shown below, written by Andre Norton.
  3. Introduces the hero/heroine. Even better if you know or learn something about where the character is or what their initial obstacle is. Like a dead body in the trunk (see Victor Gischler's first line below...)
  4. Creates a question the reader has just got to get answered. Whose dead body? What happened? (Sorry. I seem to be mentioning a lot of dead bodies around here.) Or, the hero is in jail. How did he get there? Will he get out? There is one question, however, you don't want your reader to have: What the heck is going on or happening? If your reader just gets confused, it's not working. You want to provide enough information to let your reader understand the situation, but still leave that tantalizing question in their mind to keep them reading.
So, taking a random selection of my favorite reading material, I came up with a short list of really terrific opening lines/paragraphs. As I mention them, I'll show how they drag the reader into the story...

Elizabeth Eyre
From Death of a Duchess
"From this very bed she was snatched!"

From Curtains for the Cardinal
"The Princess is dying. She can see no one."

From Poison for the Prince
"Have you come from the grave?"

These three openings are from mysteries set in the Italian Renaissance. They all three drag you right into the story. The first, because it immediately draws you in to find who was snatched, which is the first mystery element in the story. You also know they are in the bedroom (very bed) of the woman who was kidnapped. So this first sentence accomplishes a great deal. You know:
  • A woman was kidnapped; and want to know who she is and why she was kidnapped
  • You are located in a bedroom, and specifically, the kidnapped woman's bedroom

The second opening also gives you a tremendous amount of information in very few words. You know you are trying to gain entrance to see a Princess, and you know she is dying. You are set up to ask: Why is she dying? Is that why you're forbidden entrance, or is there some other dark purpose...

The third again draws you in immediately for the shock value. Who is the person being addressed and why were they assumed to be dead?

All of them make you want to read more. All of them have a economical style and wry humor that sets the tone of the story.

Victor Gischler
From Gun Monkeys
I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer's headless body in the trunk, and all the time I'm thinking I should've put some plastic down.

This is a suspense with a strong humorous element. This first sentence says it all. You know:

  • The hero is driving a Chrysler, he's in Florida on the turnpike, with a dead guy in the trunk, so you also pretty much know the guy is a criminal.
  • And you know the character normally plans ahead, and he's gotten into or is going to get into difficulties pretty soon because of that vaguely ominous statement: I should've put some plastic down...
  • The dry wit firmly settles the reader into the tone of the book.
  • And oddly enough, it's that self-deprecating, dry tone that makes you like the hero, even though he really is quite the violent bad boy...

That last point is important because it highlights something more than just writing a killer first line. The tone of the first line in this book is what makes the hero sympathetic (because it sure isn't his actions during the first few chapters). If it wasn't for that wry humor, many readers would dislike the main character. They may still dislike him, despite the sense of humor, but none-the-less, for many readers, it's the tone that makes the difference.

So in this book, that first line is doing an awful lot of work. It's setting the scene, introducing the first complications, setting the tone, introducing you to the hero, and convincing you to like the hero, all without the overt manipulation of adding things like a pet dog to try to make your hero or heroine sympathetic.

P.G. Wodehouse
From Leave it to Psmith
At the open window of the great library of Blandings Castle, drooping like a wet sock, as was his habit when he had nothing to prop his spine against, the Earl of Emsworth, that amiable and boneheaded peer, stood gazing out over his domain.

P.G. Wodehouse is a brilliant humorist and is responsible for Jeeves, that annoyingly capable bulter. This first sentence has quite a lot in common with Mr. Gischler's first sentence, believe it or not. Let's see what this one covers:

  • It sets the scene at Blandings Castle, on a nice day (because the window is open)
  • We meet the Earl of Emsworth
  • We find out the Earl is both amiable and a bonehead
  • It sets the dry, witty tone and gives you an initial chuckle over the "bonehead" remark, promising more chuckles later on

Kathy Reichs
From Deja Dead
I wasn't thinking about the man who'd blown himself up.

Ms. Reichs is a wonderful suspense writer and unlike the other authors listed above, her tone is dark and tense. This short introduction to Deja Dead immediately sets that tone.

  • The tension is immediate--a man blew himself up? Who? How did it happen? And what else has happened that could possibly make the narrator not think about this tragedy?
  • The questions created by this draw the reader in with such tension and "need to know" that it would be impossible to read that and not continue for at least a few pages.

Here, the impact of the first sentence is to used to set the tone and create questions. That's enough. So you can see that it isn't always necessary to do everything in the first sentence, just enough to get the reader, reading.

The following is another example of setting questions and tone firmly in the mind of the reader, except the tone is changed again to wry humor...

Michael McClelland
From Oyster Blues
The rum alone would not have been enough to make Harry shoot them like he did.

  • We do have a little more information in the form of the character's name, Harry, and the fact that he's a little, well, drunk. And armed.
  • Why was he drinking? Was he drinking to forget (that's the romantic view, anyway)?
  • But again, we want to know: Who did Harry shoot? And why (because it apparently wasn't the liquor that made him shoot...)?

Andre Norton
From Witch World
The rain was a slantwise curtain across the dingy street, washing soot from city walls, the taste of it metallic on the lips of the tall, thin man who walked with a loping stride close to the buildings, watching the mouths of doorways, the gaps of alleys with a narrow-eyed intentness.

Here we have an example of starting with the weather, but it works because it sets the dreary, yet ominous scene. This first sentence, while long, sets up the ordinary world and tension for this fantasy. We get the following elements:

  • The setting is described: A filthy, dismal 'ordinary world' of the city.
  • We meet our hero and know a great deal about him: he's tall and slender and is alert. He's aware of his surroundings. This alertness immediately begins to make us like him--he's not some dimwitted slob stumbling blindly through the rain, he's an intelligent man who in the midst of desperate circumstances is watchful and cautious.
  • The first line sets the tone and tension, because we know he's checking for signs of something...
  • We want to know why he's studying the doorways and alleys. What kind of trouble is he in?

Although the line, It was a dark and stormy night, rather deflated the idea of using weather as a way to set tone, it is effective if used properly. I actually had to go through several books to find first sentences which did not use weather in some way in the first sentence. For many writers, they see the beginning of a novel as a general, wide-angle camera scene where the reader is introduced to the location outside, seeing the landscape or building drenched in whatever weather exists. Then, the writer tightens the focus from the general to the specific hero or heroine. While this can work, you do have to be wary of the "dark and stormy night" phenomena.

I've also heard warnings about opening up with conversation, but I've found this to actually work quite well if you're as good at it as Elizabeth Eyre. The trick is to have a character say something interesting to set the scene.


All-in-all, it looks like great opening lines are exceptionally difficult to write. Anything that looks that smooth and easy, but does so much and presents us with so many questions just has to be hard to do. I know I certainly find it difficult.

But, if you can write a first sentence that introduces your character, sets the tone, sets the scene, gets your reader asking questions, and mentions the weather ;-) your story will be unstoppable and unforgettable.

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