I’ve been thinking about first lines, mine in particular (it’s always about me). They’re supposed to be hooks, so intriguing that the reader must keep reading, but I’m less and less likely to agree with that. Keep reading, yes, but not necessarily with the force of a hook (supply your own visuals here).. Mine tend to be too long because, I have just realized, as an author who is against long set-ups, I try to get all of mine in the first sentence. (Yes, I’ve been writing for thirty years and just noticed this.) I have a rule (for myself, not for fiction in general) that the protagonist has to show up in the first line, characterizing herself in thought, spoken word, or action. This can lead to crimes against intro paragraphs if I don’t keep a grip on my ambitions.
“On a gloomy March afternoon, sitting the same high school classroom she’d been sitting in for thirteen years, gritting her teeth as she told her significant other for the seventy-second time since they’d met that she’d be home at six because it was Wednesday and she was always home at six on Wednesdays, Quinn McKenzie lifted her eyes from the watercolor assignments on the desk in front of her and met her destiny.”
Okay, on the plus side, that’s time, setting, character trait, conflict, antagonist, and hook. But it’s also unreadable. Jesus, Crusie, you have the whole first page to get the readers, give them time to breathe. The next sentence is short for contrast and impact:
“Her destiny was a small black dog with desperate eyes, so she missed the significance at first.”
That starts the plot and introduces the MacGuffin, so I’m still working the page hard, but it’s also where the story starts. I could have started the story with that line; everything that came before that is set-up.
So, things to remember: the first line has to do some setting-up, but not the whole damn to-do list.
“Sophie Dempsey didn’t like Temptation even before the Garveys smashed into her ’86 Civic, broke her sister’s sunglasses, and confirmed all her worst suspicions about people from small towns who drove beige Cadillacs.”
I like that. I’d keep that one, even though it veers close to too heavy in places (“Sophie didn’t like temptation” is very On The Nose foreshadowing). It sets up Sophie up as somebody who’s broke, cautious and sisterly, while introducing the antagonist and starting the story in action.
“Once upon a time, Minerva Dobbs thought as she stood in the middle of a loud yuppie bar, the world was full of good men.”
The big thing for me when I was writing this was that the story had to begin with “Once upon a time” because it’s a fairy tale. That dictated the rest of the sentence along with introducing the protagonist. The next sentence starts the conversation between Min and David and we’re into set-up (ARGH) for seven pages (on Kindle) before the antagonist, Cal, shows up. Actually, Fate is the antagonist here (I was experimenting, okay?) but Cal’s the avatar for Fate. I tried to disguise the set-up as conflict but it was basically snappy patter as a mask for “here’s the ex-boyfriend, here’s her friends, oh, look, there’s the hero.” Sometimes I could just slap me.
“Mare Fortune bounded down the stairs of the family home in her ragged blue running shorts just as the wind caught the front door and blew it open, sending coppery dust swirling in.”
I think that’s a good first line. (It’s weird reading this stuff after so many years.). It establishes Mare as the protagonist (well, my protagonist) in modern times (running shorts) and briefly characterizes her (bounding down the stairs, wearing ragged shorts), and starts the action (her aunt blew open with door with magic, although the reader doesn’t know that yet). I’d keep that line.
“The man behind the cluttered desk looked like the devil, and Nell Dysart figured that was par for her course since she’d been going to hell for a year and a half anyway.”
That’s a good first line: intro the protagonist in trouble, intro the antagonist, light foreshadowing about temptation. Sometimes I get it right.
“Matilda Goodnight stepped back from her latest mural and realized that of all the crimes she’d committed in her thirty-four years, painting the floor-to-ceiling reproduction of van Gogh’s sunflowers on Clarissa Donnelly’s dining room wall was the one that was going to send her to hell.”
I love this sentence as a sentence, I love the whole first paragraph as a paragraph. It’s so . . . ME. What it isn’t is an introduction to this story which is not about painting murals or going to hell. The whole first scene is good writing; it just has nothing to do with the story. The ramp up to the story, which is Tilda and Davy learning to trust each other enough to connect, is all Set-Up. When does the story start? SIXTEEN PAGES LATER. In a closet. Yes, I still think this is one of my best books. But the beginning is bad.
“Mary Alice Brannigan sat on the roof of the Dreamland carousel at twenty minutes to midnight and considered her work in the light from the lamp on her yellow miner’s hat.”
Welp, there’s your protagonist, folks. That’s an okay first line, but we’re not going for “okay” here, we’re going for “WOW I can’t wait to read the next sentence.” This is not that.
“One fine August evening in South Carolina, Agnes Crandall stirred raspberries and sugar in her heavy non-stick frying pan and defended her fiancé to the only man she’d ever trusted.”
I have a fondness for this line because of the reversal at the end. I love reversals, every time I manage to pull off a good one, I wriggle with happiness. (TMI?). The idea that the man she trusts is not her fiancé, and that she has to defend the non-trusted guy to the one she trusts (so he must be right) . . . I just purely love that. This is where “kill your darlings” rears its ugly head, but some of my darlings are really good. Like this one. (Example of one that’s not: the beginning of Faking It.)
“Andie Miller sat in the reception room of her ex-husband’s law office, holding onto ten years of uncashed alimony checks and a lot of unresolved rage.”
I like this one. Introduces the protagonist in an antagonistic setting (not just ex but lawyer) and sets up her main internal conflict without explaining it to the reader: Andie’s not over her ex (see “uncashed” and “unresolved”). Then the page moves fast and Andie’s facing North almost immediately. Good job, Crusie.
So I went back and looked at my category novels, to see if I’d been better back then, and found out that I was at least crisper, but better? Uh, no.
“The last thing Nina Askew needed was Fred.”
“Allie McGuffey knew a yuppie bar was a lousy place to find a hero, but she was desperate, so she had to make do with what she had on hand.”
“I’ve never know anyone who was stood up for her own divorce before,” Tina Savage told her sister.” (This one loses points for not being “Lucy Savage Porter hears her sister say; always lead with the protagonist.)
“Planning on jumping?” (Never start with an unattributed line of dialogue. I’m sorry, it was my first novel, I didn’t know any better.)
“When Tess Newhart threw open her apartment door, Nick Jamieson was standing there–tall, dark, and suspiciously happy to see her, his pleasantly blunt face a nice human contrast to his perfectly tailored suit.” (I believe this is where the Crusie problem of Too Long Opening Sentences began.)
“Four Fabulous Days!” (Yes, Jenny, start with a printed invitation instead of a character. What the hell?)
“Mae Sullivan frowned up at the old office building and shifted from one aching spike-heeled foot to the other, trying to keep the weight off her blisters.” (Reading this made me think about the whole book and I realized that Mae isn’t the protagonist of this, Mitch is. Weird. Well, it was a noir pastiche and noir protagonist are always male, but still. I should have started with Mitch in his office when Mae walks in. That’s a great scene.)
So my category openings are shorter but not better. Clearly, I often have an opening line problem.
Which bring us to the multiple works in progress I have going. First lines we can do something about! So exciting. (Yes, I am a wonk.)
“At half past midnight on her thirty-third birthday, Detective Nita Dodd squinted through an ice-streaked car window at the worst dive bar on Demon Island, drank the awful coffee the stranger beside her handed her, and shivered while she tried to sober up.” (I’m not sure about this. I mean obviously my set-up fervor is going full bore here: protagonist, protagonist’s career, protagonist in trouble (drunk, stranger), protagonist goal (sober), time, place, and author voice, although that’s not strong. I don’t think it introduces Nita’s character, but it’s already working overtime, and the next paragraph is Nita’s thoughts which do that. Verdict: I am not sure about this even though I have a first (and twenty-first) draft of this. I think this clunks.)
“Anna Jones looked over her catseye glasses at the guy in the good suit by the roulette wheel and thought, Maybe him.” (I like this one. She’s wearing glasses and scoping out a guy in a casino, and there’s a subtle hook in the Maybe him. I’ll revise it when the first draft is done, but it works for me now.)
“Alice Archer surveyed the three live humans and one ghost in the room and decided the guy in the armchair was going to be the problem.” (Huh. Another observer protagonist, sizing up the room. Never noticed that before. Mae, Allie, Tilda, Mab, Nell, they all start by surveying something. I have a lot of cautious heroines.)
“The problem with forging Van Gogh, Nadine thought, wasn’t the technique, it was the emotion, the chaos underneath the beauty, the thrust of terror under the slashing brushwork.” (Another huh. I like the beginning paragraph, just not sure about this sentence. The key word here is “forging,” backed up by the problem. I think the whole opening works, but maybe not this line. Also, this is clearly a callback to Faking It, and I’m not sure that’s necessary or even good.)
“Zo White pulled her Mother of Mercy cloak free of a sticker bush and then looked again through the vine-crusted iron fence of Paradise Park and across the busy cobblestoned street to the dark stone mansion that loomed over everything else.” (No. Terrible first line. Terrible, terrible. Delete and rewrite.)
“Petal Revell smiled at the frog in the palm of her left hand, trying to seem calm and positive.” (That’s not terrible. It’s not good, either. Maybe better if I got in the part where the frog had been a man until she’d kissed him, but that might be too hook-ish. Definitely look again when I get the draft finished, which it almost is.)
“The massive mahogany bar enclosure in the center of Maggie’s Ear and Restaurant was raised a foot off the restaurant floor, which mean that Cat Gilford, looking out through the arched opening, could see the entire restaurant.” (Another observer protagonist. I HAVE to stop doing that. Also lousy intro to protagonist. Definitely rewrite.)
“I saw the Welcome to Burney sign around two o’clock one bright April afternoon when the air was crisp with the scent of rain that might turn to snow (spring in Ohio is iffy).” (No, no, and no. This is my “It was a dark and stormy night.”)
“Fifteen minutes into Lily Frey’s first session with a therapist, she wanted to thwap the woman with her stapler.” (No. I’m pretty sure this starts in the wrong place but even so that’s still a bad opener. I definitely need more of this done before I know how to shape the story, but this is just bad, although at least Lily isn’t observing something.)
“Courtney Maxwell was putting the Felici watches in their cases when she realized her hands were shaking.” (No, no, no. Weak start, tells the reader nothing.)
“Darcy was sitting with a cup of cocoa in front of her tiny fireplace when she looked up and saw Colin standing in the doorway.” (No wonder so many of my heroines wear glasses: eyestrain from too much observation.)
“Zelda Banks turned her ancient Camry down into the snow-drifted lane and thought, I am cheerfully optimistic and completely in control.” (Needs work, but I kind of like this one, since it says she’s a pessimist who’s losing her grip on the situation.)
Well, if nothing else, I’ve recognized that I have an observer heroine problem. Maybe they’re all just cautious. They’re all in their thirties or older so it’s not like they haven’t learned not to run into things. Hmmm.
So to bring this back to practicality: Can a first line make or break a book? Of course not. Is it the first step on the journey, the first taste of the pie, the first touch between writer and reader? Yes, clearly. A creative writing prof of mine once said that the first line eliminates 90% of the options for the rest of the story. I think he was right in general, I know it establishes writer’s voice and the promise of what is to come. There’s a reason that “It was a dark and stormy night” is a laughable beginning and “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” is so universally loved. There’s an entire world in Austen’s first sentence, an author with a delightful voice making light fun of her society, whereas Bulwer-Lytton was a meterologist. (Okay, I desperately want to start a novel with “It was a dark and stormy night,” but then I’d have to follow it with another clause and we know where that leads.)
• First lines are important, but only as first taste of the story; don’t work so hard on a hook you oversalt the taste. (I remember workshopping the original first line of Tell Me Lies–“The black crotchless bikini underpants lay on the yellow Formica counter like a bat in butter.”–and having my creative writing prof say, “Okay, now where are you going to go?” because now I was going to have to explain all of that instead of writing the story.)
• Put anything in there to begin with and then when the entire book is finished, go back and rewrite it so it introduces the book you wrote, not the one you thought you were writing.
• Get your protagonist in there, put in her in conflict or at least trouble, so the reader attaches.
• Make sure you haven’t flattened your voice in the rewrite or in the reach for a hook.
And I’m certainly going to do all of those things. Eventually.