Monday, May 27, 2013

The Writer's Toolbox: First Lines

Hi!  I'd like to introduce a new blog series today: the Writer's Toolbox.  In these posts, I want to talk about (and hear your thoughts on) nitty-gritty writing stuff, the tools and techniques of the craft of writing.

So let's dive right in...  First topic: first lines!

Everyone knows the opening line of a story or novel is important.  Every writer agonizes over it.  Some can't even start until they have it.

Okay, yes.  *raises hand*  That's me.  I have to be in love with my first line before I can write the rest of the book.  Sometimes it comes to me quickly; sometimes I have to write a bajillion openings until I find one that feels right.  But I need to have that sentence (or two or three) before I can proceed.

There are lots of great first lines out there.  And there are lots of different kinds of great first lines.  For me personally, the ones that work best do one of four things:

1. Establish what's normal

"Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer's wife." -- L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

In this one sentence, we know instantly where we are and what kind of people we're with.  This is both an important and appropriate opening for this novel: We have to know what's normal for Dorothy, i.e. what her sepia-toned world is, so that we can appreciate the contrast when we're swept away into technicolor.

"Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen." -- Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass

We may not know what a "daemon" is, but we know instantly that Lyra knows.  The simple word "her" does all the work here.  She's with "her daemon."  This establishes right away that what's normal for Lyra isn't normal for us.
2. Set up expectations

"Look, I didn't want to be a half-blood.  If you're reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now.  Believe whatever lie your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to lead a normal life." -- Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief

Setting up the right expectations is crucial.  You can write the best mystery in the world, but if a reader thinks you're going to deliver a romance, then odds are he or she will be disappointed.  This opening sets us up to expect a dangerous, out-of-the-ordinary adventure.  And that's exactly what we get.

"Human girls cry when they're sad and laugh when they're happy.  They have a single fixed shape rather than shifting with their whims like wind-blown smoke.  They have their very own parents, whom they love.  They don't go around stealing other girls' mothers.  At least that's what Kaye thought human girls were like.  She wouldn't really know.  After all, she wasn't human." -- Holly Black, Ironside

With this opening, we expect magic in the real world.  We expect to see it (and us) through the eyes of a nonhuman.  Also, we expect some parent issues.

3. Start the action

"Alanna the Lioness, the King's Champion, could hardly contain her glee.  Baron Piers of Mindelan had written to King Jonathan to say that his daughter wished to be a page." -- Tamora Pierce, First Test (Protector of the Small)

This is a somewhat unusual opening because it isn't from the protagonist's point-of-view.  It's from the pov of the protagonist of Pierce's earlier series, essentially handing the story baton to the new lady-knight-to-be.  But I think it works as an opening because in the space of two sentences, you know the entire core conflict for the next four books: a girl wants to be trained openly as a knight.

"Gordon Edgley's sudden death came as a shock to everyone -- not least himself." -- Derek Landy, Skullduggery Pleasant

Every story has a catalyst -- the event that rocks the status quo and propels the protagonist into the adventure.  Some books establish normal first and shortly after turn it upside down.  Others, like this novel, begin right away with the catalyst.  The death in this first sentence is what leads to all the events in the rest of the book.

"On the day she was to die, Liyana walked out of her family's tent to see the dawn." -- Sarah Beth Durst, Vessel

This novel also begins with the day that changes everything, the day that the protagonist has been anticipating for years, the biggest moment in her life.  I believe a novel really should be about the most meaningful thing to happen to a character -- otherwise, there's no reason to tell the story.  With this sort of opening, we're diving directly in.

4. Set the tone

"There is a certain kind of girl the goblins crave.  You could walk across a high school campus and point them out: not her, not her, her.  The pert, lovely ones with butterfly tattoos in secret places, sitting on their boyfriends' laps? Yes.  Them.  The goblins want girls who dream so hard about being pretty their yearning leaves a palpable trail, a scent goblins can follow like sharks on a soft bloom of blood.  The girls with hungry eyes who pray each night to wake up as someone else.  Urgent, unkissed, wishful girls.  Like Kizzy." -- Laini Taylor, Lips Touch Three Times

This beginning does establish a character, but more than that, it sets a tone.  We expect this story to be poetic, like the Goblin Market poem it's based on.

"If Sarah hadn't put the monkey in the bathtub, we might never have had to help the monsters get big.  But she did, so we did, which, given the way things worked out, was probably just as well for everyone on the planet -- especially the dead people." -- Bruce Coville, The Monsters of Morley Manor

This one sets the tone for a madcap adventure.  It works for me because it both makes me smile and makes me ask why.  I think it's my favorite opening line of all-time.

What are some of your favorite opening lines?

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At 11:35 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

"There was a hand in the dark, and it held a knife." The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman. It sets the tone for the rest of the story, and contains suspense.

For me, I worry more about grounding my story in the normal and then polishing up the first line. Sometimes it can take a while to get proper wording as well.

At 11:36 AM, Blogger christine M said...

Great tips! First lines can be so tricky!

At 12:40 PM, Anonymous Mary Alexandra Agner said...

I'm in the love-my-line before I can get started category, too. And I'm wondering, do you ever change them? I mean, sometimes I come up with a line I love and I write out the whole bit, but when I revise, that line doesn't stay. Thoughts?

At 9:16 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Priya: Definitely a great opening. Love that book!

Grounding the story makes a lot of sense (and I like that term for it).

Christine: Yes, they can. I completely obsess over them.

Mary: Good question. I just checked, and weirdly I don't change them. Every other word in the entire novel often changes (even, once, including the protagonist's name!), but the first line seems to always stay. I do, however, know authors whose process is to write the entire novel and then toss out the first three chapters. Definitely no single "right" way to do it.

At 10:04 AM, Blogger LinWash said...

I'm still partial to "It was a dark and stormy night" from A Wrinkle in Time.

Thanks for this post. I rewrote the opening lines of my WiP several times before I settled on what's there now. I think I was too "writerly" before. I was not in character at all. As I rewrote, I finally determined the character's voice.

At 3:52 AM, Blogger Anton Troia said...

The first line for EVERY chapter is the hardest to come up with !

At 3:52 AM, Blogger Anton Troia said...

The first line for every chapter is the hardest to come up with. Not just the very first one!

At 1:03 PM, Blogger Kelsey H said...

"In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.
Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three sisters." -Howl's Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones. I had already seen (and loved) the Ghibli movie version before I got hold of the book, but the fairy tale references did me in. Right away I knew this was going to be a setting I would love.

"When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child even seen. It was true, too." -The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Maybe this is silly, but I had to like Mary simply because she was so unlikeable.

"She was born Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree, and she did not open her eyes for three days." -The Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale. I fell in love with the magical tone in this book, and that was before I got to know the characters.

These are all lines from my favorite books, and I get sort of giddy reading them. It makes me want to go through some other ones on my shelves, paying special attention to the intros--especially because writing introductions is not my strong suit.


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