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.
116 thoughts on “Crusie First Lines, a Critique”
I’m sorry – I’m not a writer so ALL of these starting lines sound great. I love a book with smart, snarky dialogue, which is something that is in short demand any more. I cannot tell you how many books with a clever sounding plot is a DNR because the dialogue was stilted and unimaginative. All your books hook me right from the start and continue right through to the end. If you look hard enough you can always find a fault, but for me that’s really hard for the ones you write. Sorry – Big fan here :).
Big fan here, too. Some of your first lines are better than others (of your first lines), but your books hook me every time. Even Sizzle.
The best opener I’ve read in a long time is the first sentence of Rivers of London. I don’t know why, but it totally hooked me and I even read it out loud to several people.
“It started at one-thirty on a cold Tuesday morning in January when Martin Turner, street performer and, in his own words, apprentice gigolo, tripped over a body in the West Portico of St. Paul’s at Covent Garden.”
It’s great for capturing voice, which is marvelous, and setting, and the fact that this is about a murderer. But it takes forever to get to who the first person narrator is, and he’s the protagonist of the series. I love this series, Aaronovitch is a terrific writer, but that’s a long time not to know that this is a first person PoV and not omniscient.
In the darkness there is death.
Then there is:
Shane stood in the Savannah Airport, on the wrong side of security given he didn’t have a ticket, and miserably tried to estimate how he was going to survive the next ten days as Agnes turned one last time and blew him a kiss.
Oh, god, you caught too-long openings from me.
Ha. I was just thinking that.
Firstlinus Tulongus… The Novella Carumba Virus
aww, that’s sweet!
Who wrote the line that starts with “Deb”? I swear I have read it but can’t place it.
My favorite first line (for a murder mystery): “”Deb, I’ve got an extra body.””
Which has your unattributed dialogue problem, but, Deb is actually the protagonist so it does still introduce her. And, *extra* body. That begs an explanation.
Another favorite (this one is sci-fi): “The man who was not Terrence O’Grady had come quietly.” It is intriguing, you have to admit (If he’s not Terrence O’Grady, then who is he, and why the confusion?)
Agent of Change by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. I recognize that first line without having to look it up so it’s definitely memorable 🙂
That’s for the Terrence Grady line 🙂
Oh, yeah, it hooked me the minute I picked it up off the shelf. Great first line.
Plus, who can forget the Clutch Turtles?
Actually, the Liaden Universe books has some lovely dialogue in places too. Particularly anything that comes out of Shan’s mouth.
For those of you wondering where the “It’s Always the Story” post went, it wasn’t finished and I accidentally set it to publish. I’ll try to get it done today and it’ll go up tomorrow with the two comments it already had on it.
When I started Faking It the first time, I tracked down everyone in the house to read the first line out loud. It is my favorite Crusie opening line. I also love the first sentences of Bet Me and Agnes and the Hitman.
On the other hand, I’m a bit skeptical about opening lines because they’re used as a game in English classes. Sure, I can memorize which novels start with “I am born,” “Call me Ishmael,” and the like. The great openings, like the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, are marvelous. Off the top of my head, the one first line that sticks with me is “Nothing ever happens to me,” from Mary Stewart’s My Brother Michael. It works because it’s short and easy to remember; the character immediately gets herself in a mess; and, it’s an amusing whine that starts (for me) Stewart’s most (only?) humorous adventure romance.
absolutely agree. I sent the book to a lot of people. I adore that first line.
This was fascinating, but it put me in a fever to go check out the first lines of the books I love the most, and they are all over the map with first lines. Some (first person voiced) give you a sense of the narrator’s tone and personality, and when that is the protagonist, in a way it does exactly what you’re describing, but in an indirect way. He/she is sarcastic, or worried, or grieving, and if the voice appeals to you, it doesn’t need to be matched with details — you’ll read on because you want to know where that person is going to go with what s/he is telling you about.
Some start with more of a cinematic view of a place, a time, a set of events that are unfolding, and even if the protagonist doesn’t appear for a few pages, you’re curious. The wonderful “Mouse and His Child” by Russell Hoban (nominally a children’s book, but it never fails to amaze me) starts with a tramp looking into a lighted store window at Christmas, where windup toys on a counter are walking along the glass surface. (the windups are the protagonists, but you realize that later).
Tolstoy’s War and Peace starts out with several sentences mostly in French. Tolstoy’s Russian, but apparently in the 1860’s French was cool, and a celebrity was saying them. Peons like the reader, if they didn’t know French, could read the translation in a footnote. It takes a page or two to find out the book is starting at a party, where the protagonist doesn’t show up for quite a while. War isn’t obvious, peace might be happening, but you have to keep reading to figure out what the book (and the title) is about.
So it strikes me that maybe I’m comparing apples and kiwi fruit. Is evidence that a crime has happened the ideal beginning for a mystery? I can see the vulnerability or need of a heroine being the central focus of a romance story, which makes sense of everything you’re talking about. I would love it if you (and/or Bob) would comment on how genre dictates or influences the whole beginning of stories.
I think the big thing about opening lines and genre is the contract-with-the-reader. That is, the first line, the first paragraph, the first page promises the reader the rest of the book: it’ll sound like this, it’ll be about these things, it’ll move like this . . . Of course if you’re buying the book in your hand, you’ll have the cover and the blurbs to tell you what it’s about, if you’re buying it online you’ll have the blurb, cover, and the reader reviews, but in general, that first bit is a promise to the reader and that’s a lot of what she’ll base her expectations on, expectations that have to met for her satisfaction.
I’ve been struggling with responding to this, because the opening of Bet Me is one of my favorites in a book anywhere (closely followed by “… which she knew was courting disaster, but it was late and she was tired of playing nice with fruit.”), and because it’s your world and your work.
But… I feel like one axis is being isolated – the abrupt* story hook – and when looked on one axis you see something very different in two or three or N.
One thing I’m not seeing listed in what the first sentence does is: signaling to the reader that they’re slipping into a Crusie.
I get a happy, anticipatory wriggle from those openings. They’re when I move into the story. They’re also essential to launching the protagonist’s journey, because your protagonists often seem to move from watching to being/acting/seizing agency.
My 2¢, for what they’re worth.
*not the right word, but best I can do at the moment.
The thing is, the world is full of people who have never read a Crusie (the fools), so I have to write each story as if the reader has never read me before.
Otherwise it would be all food, dogs, angry heroines, and banter with easy-going guys who just want a quiet life with lots of sex.
Although I am becoming resigned to the observer narrator in the opening as long as she moves her butt into action in the second paragraph.
But they’ll enjoy it, and have a delightful sense of recognition on book 2!
And I’d totally read a book that was all that. Well, I’d like a cat, too.
I do take your point, though. I’m not a fiction writer or a writing wonk, so it’s worth a grain of salt, but I feel that static moment as observer is the point of launch, so it is story. It’s the moment the coordinate system flips.
I’m coming over to your way of thinking. I blame you.
Oh, and I think the beginning is story specific – for me, the opening of Bet Me was a whole lot of “oh god, that! And good, solid feminism”. At least, that’s what I get when I read it, possibly as a result of my headspace when I read it the first time. (“You tried being nice! What did that get you?! A six month delay in getting your lab up.” was actually said)
An upside to the observer thing is that it puts the reader immediately into the protagonist’s head, letting them inhabit the story.
Jenny, “food, dogs, angry heroines, and banter with easy-going guys who just want a quiet life with lots of sex” sounds like fun.
I could also go for a cat like Cari.
I attended a virtual conference where an author was adamantly arguing for alpha males because beta males have “no balls.”
The beta males have balls and are having quiet lives with lots of sex instead of yelling at each other and showing off their semi-automatic weapons.
That must have been a fun conference.
You know that would be a fun topic: most memorable moment at a conference. I have so many.
The most famous opening line in French literature is : « Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure ». It opens Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann, the first book of A la recherche du Temps perdu.
I tried reading Proust as a teenager but gave up pretty quickly. Now, I use small extracts of his prose once in a while to torture my Advanced students , I mean test their comprehension skills :).
I periodically try to read Proust in French, which is futile since I am practically illiterate in French (and my English isn’t all that great, which is too bad since it is my native language). I have read it several times in translation and for some inexplicable reason adore it. One summer, fresh out of college and needing something to keep my occupied while my husband worked at a consulting job and sunbathed on the beach, I decided to read Proust. I did not stop until I read all of the volumes then I started over again. I have no idea where this fascination came from.
Maybe I should read it in English instead 😀
Interesting re Proust, LN. As a Canadian, my first attachment to a French writer was Gabrielle Roy, and I think she had some good first lines that fit with the promise to the reader idea like in her Bonheur D’Occasion novel with this first line: “À cette heure, Florentine s’était prise à guetter la venue du jeune homme qui, la veille, entre tant de propos railleurs, lui avait laissé entendre qu’il la trouvait jolie.”
But probably the 1st line that seemed to be presented in school as quite popular was from L’Étranger by Camus (“Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je new sais pas.”)
Both of these writers I first learned about at school when I was quite young. Thinking back now (several decades later), I’m thankful that Roy got to be presented along male writers because I don’t think many women (besides maybe Beauvoir in a different light) made it into the curriculum back then. All of these writers I read also on my own, but I never forgot the role of teachers in introducing them to me.
It is sad to think that I have never heard of Gabrielle Roy. When I was growing up, we only read dead white French male authors at school. I was in a special class where we did extra English and I got to read Jane Austen’s sense and sensibility at 15. It was a complete revelation and it led me to read as many English female writers as I could get my hands one and, to cut a long story short, ultimately to life in the UK.
Yes exactly. So much of what we got exposed to then was work by men without equal representation from any other group. But Gabrielle Roy did also win awards for her work, including one from France, and she explored a lot about relationships and society.
But I hear you on Jane Austen and women writers. I did much the same, only not the life in UK part:) I have a wonderful compilation book of female modernist writers, too, that I adore because there were so many that went overlooked and it’s nice to see them get some appreciation.
I would never have noticed all the “observing” first lines if you hadn’t pointed it out. I kind of like it, actually – call it a trademark instead of a fault.
A dear friend wrote a short story, the first line of which was “It should have been Paris, 1912, or the Bronx, but it wasn’t” None of which had anything to do with the story, but I still remember it 40+ years later, so you have to give it that.
“I always get the shakes before a drop.” – Heinlein, Starship Troopers (Which bears no relationship to the movie of that name.)
I remember when I first read “Pride and so on” to see what the deal was. I didn’t understand “in want of” as meaning “needs” – I read it as “ain’t got.” And to my less enlightened (i.e. chauvinistic pig) self at the time, I agreed that of course he was young and still rich, if he wasn’t married.
I wrote seven short stories in what I call the Chocolate Morsels series, and they all started with some variation of Jeanine said, “One of us needs to go to the store.” Sometimes I moved the punctuation, but that was “my gimmick.” I should have been beaten with #2 pencils.
‘Starship Troopers’ is one of my favorites of Golden Age SF. Just. Doesn’t. Stop.
Yes, the book was much better than the movie. Oddly, I don’t think many got the shakes before a drop. I saw guys sleeping on the plane on the way to an infiltration. Most were nervous, but the overall mood was “I want to get the hell out of this thing and not have a hundred fifty pounds of stuff dragging on me.”
The “observing” intros tell us that the heroine is smart and who wants to spend 300 pages with a dumb heroine?
I think the problem with some of those intros was that they tried to do to much at the same time. We just have to have enough curiosity to read the next few lines, and as Jane Austen proved, the force of those observations can be enough rope us in.
Yes, Jane Austen’s observation in the first line of Pride and Prejudice indicates that she was being a smartass. Which is why I love that book so much.
True. I don’t know what it is about the first sentence of a book that attracts authors so much. Just make it representative of the rest of the book. If your stock in trade is snappy banter or whatever then make it snappy and get to it. That’s what I’m here for. If I’m browsing a physical book to see if I’m going to like it I always read a bit out of the middle because that’s where bad authors stop paying attention. You can’t trust the start of a book.
Oh, that’s so smart. The middle of the book thing. The mess in the middle. You’re absolutely right.
This is EXACTLY what I do if I find a recommended book not enjoyable. Open to the middle and read a chapter. Sometimes it will hook me in enough to persevere with the beginning. If the middle chapter is not great, I’m never going to like it.
I hate to disagree with Jennifer Crusie, but I love all those first lines from the published books. Every freaking one of them. They all caught the feeling of the books and the protagonists and pulled me right in.
On the other hand, you’re not wrong about the current ones needing some work. It is intriguing to see them all in the same place. It is clear that you had a consistent voice with the earlier books, and less clear with some of the current ones. Hmmm.
I also agree that those lines sold me and got my attention, every time, even if they were a bit long.
I like a book where the author has a distinctive voice. They’re not just telling a story, they’re providing a point of view. Your examples reinforce why I like your books. Sophie Dempsey doesn’t just say they were hit by a car. She is conveyed as having an edge–she is opinionated, a bit cynical, and has at least one hangup about small towns. I lean toward books that are snarky (but with heart), so I knew I would most likely like WTT when I started reading it (that was a long time ago, but I assume this was the case). Without a distinctive voice, books often seem flat.
Exactly! I want some snark and a point of view in a beginning to sell me.
Now I want to review my first lines! The only one I recall word-for-word without going to the actual book is easy because it’s only two words. One of which is NSFW.
i also writepicture books and I spent a lotof time looking for Children’s Book first lines, Over the course of a few years I did a lot of first line posts.
Here’s one of my favorites. https://thepenandinkblog.blogspot.com/2009/11/first-lines-with-titles-and-authors.html
The question that immediately springs to my mind is, how do you introduce the protagonist in the first line if the story is told in first person POV? Because starting out with ‘My name is …’ is a little lame, and doesn’t necessarily start where the story starts.
I’ve written three in alternating-1st-person-POV. One starts:
When I got the call I thought *hell,* because it was a domestic disturbance.
When I wrote it I wasn’t thinking this one line should tell the reader who that narrator is, but maybe it kind of does?
That is (please note I am not saying these are good opening lines, I’m just showing how to get a first person PoV in the first line):
“It was semi-dark and drizzling when I found the body.”
“I would never have run have into his six-pack in that rainstorm if it hadn’t been so damn dark.”
“I knew we’d screwed up the time jump when we opened the door and Hawaii was full of freezing rain and lashing winds and raptors coming at us out of the dark.”
“‘It was a dark and stormy night,’ he intoned, and I began contemplating sliding to the floor and crawling toward the exit.”
“If it hadn’t been so dark and stormy, I would have just left him in his boxers, but the weather made it necessary to hit him with the hammer and roll the body under the bed.”
“I have seasonal affect disorder, which is a real thing and which makes me insane whenever it gets dark and stormy; that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
“My sister calls him ‘Mr. Dark-and-Stormy’ but to me he just looks like Heathcliff Lite, so no, I will not be fake dating him.”
“I like my surroundings filled with light and my women blonde, so when she stormed into my office, dark hair flying and dark eyes flashing and knocked over my desk lamp, I called security and told them to remove her and send up a new lamp.”
“My life has no dark and stormy nights, it is quiet and well-organized with plenty of soft indirect lighting, and I’m good with that, I really am, but just every now and then, I start thinking about what could happen in the dark and thunderstorms really turn me on and right now I FUCKING HATE MY WELL-LIGHTED PLACE, but I’m sure that feeling will pass, so I’m just going to go have a nice cup of tea and turn on another lamp because everything is just fine.”
I could go on, but you get the drift.
Fandamtastic. And so impressive that you can do this off the cuff…
It’s the next 99,990 words that are really hard.
I really want to read the boxers one….
I’m after the Heathcliff Lite one.
“I like my surroundings filled with light and my women blonde, so when she stormed into my office, dark hair flying and dark eyes flashing and knocked over my desk lamp, I called security and told them to remove her and send up a new lamp.”
I would not only happily read the book that had just about any of these as a first line but would probably buy it without needing to read more.
I love the openings of all Crusie books, but then I’m a fan. Granted, some are better than others, but I adore the beginning of “Faking It”. It might not foreshadow the whole story but it did a great job introducing the heroine.
One of the best writers I know for opening lines is Jayne Anne Krentz. Below is the opening paragraph of her novel “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” by Amanda Quick:
The abstract painting on the bedroom wall was new. It had been painted in fresh blood.
Or another opening of hers, from “After Dark” by Jayne Castle:
If it had not been horribly obvious that Chester Brady was already dead, Lydia Smith might have strangled him herself.
Well, this has been great fun, and I’m resisting the temptation to pull down every fiction work I own to see how it begins. I’m with the fans–I will wade through a long opening sentence if it’s a Crusie novel. Or Dickens.
I had to go back to revise a long-ish essay that was due last Monday, and resorted to Richard Lanham’s Paramedic Method of revising (from his book Revising Prose). First point: 1. Circle the prepositions (of, in, about, for, onto, into), then get rid of extra prepositional phrases. Many of the remaining points were about getting rid of passive voice, which is not one of my besetting sins. BUT when I printed out the first page and circled prepositions, I realized the page was composed almost entirely of prep. phrases. Revising made for tighter prose.
I love these discussions on craft!
“It was a dark and stormy night.” is also the opening line of A Wrinkle in Time. It sets up why 3/5 of the Murray’s are up in the middle of the night though and why Mrs. Whatsit shows up.
My favourite line in the whole book is “Wild nights are my glory. I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course.”
A Wrinkle in Time was my favorite childhood book.. hooked me from the very beginning. The recent vanity fair had a fascinating article about the author …
When I was in grade 5, my home room teacher was a crotchety older English woman who had the most brilliant teaching strategy ever. Every Friday afternoon for the final 2 periods of the day we read, either silently on our own (so she could get some work done when she was actually getting paid for it) for one period or we read out loud in groups and then the last period she read to us. She read A Wrinkle in Time and Willo Davis Roberts The View from the Cherry Tree and another book which didn’t make any impression on me at all apparently. It was a relaxing, calming way to end the week and it was two classes she didn’t have to lesson plan for. It was a win-win. Those are some of my best memories of school.
I like your openings.
Really, though, it’s not necesary to put so much pressure on the first sentence. Even a reluctant reader will give you the whole first paragraph, and a person with a reasonable attention span will give you at least the first page.
Also, while I see the point of establishing the lead character early on, I think there’s a *benefit* to establishing characters, setting, background, before you introduce the conflict. Beginning the conflict in the first paragraph leaves me going “What? And why should I care?” because nothing was established before the fight began. I have nothing to value that’s at stake.
The Bet Me opening was good because it introduces Min and establishes her mood, her views, her position in life, and her friendships before it brings in Cal and The Bet.
And the opening of Faking It works fine in my eyes because the opening sequence, with Clarissa and the mural and the dog and the panicky phone call from home, is a nice little set-piece. It introduces us gently to our heroine’s mood and abilities and occupation: she’s a painter! how feminine and ladylike; she’s a little burned out; aren’t we all?–and then shows how she’s not ladylike at all. She is not even a respectable kind of fix-it person. She moves through troubled situations like a hot knife through butter: dangerous, surprising, hot.
That opening scene is like the overture to a concerto. That way when the real conflict starts, we’re already solidly on board and invested in the heroine’s goals and well-being.
So it’s a prologue. ARGGGGGGGGGGGGGh.
Yes (maybe), but I’m with Rozasharn: I like that beginning because I get to know the heroine, and therefore am invested in her story. Whereas I’m afraid I found many of your openings rather indigestible the first time round: so much crammed into a sentence that it could take a couple of goes to follow all of it. (Rather reminds me of rereading my own stuff, in that way. I have a tendency to pack a lot in.)
Exactly the problem. Readers shouldn’t have to translate your first line.
I’m wondering, in my case, whether it’s due in part to over-editing. Maybe we need to relax a bit??
For me, right now, it’s about reinventing myself, so I’m looking at everything I’ve done before, and this was just one aspect. I found it fascinating because I find everything about me fascinating (g).
I think the key for me is the discovery draft: no editing in the discovery draft, just write whatever I want. But then there comes a time when I have this huge mass of words and it’s a mess, and then I have to think it through. That’s when my inner wonk kicks in and I have a great time makings lists and charts and diagrams and just generally working out.
But I do agree that perfection is not only the enemy of the good, but the enemy of creativity. It’s okay if it’s sloppy if it works. Some of those first lines do not work, so I won’t do that again. So yes, relax a little bit. I need to take time to stop and smell the prose; some of that stuff is really good writing, even if it’s not doing what it should.
As a result of reading Jenny’s first lines back-to-back, along with her comments, I noticed that the ones starting with prepositional phrases are the ones that lost my interest, relatively speaking. I had (upon review) a strong preference for lines that began with the character’s name–not because the name itself is significant but because I want to start connecting with the character instantly. Time, place, setting? Whatever. An interesting character? I’m there.
Interesting. Now I have to go back and look for prepositions.
Jenny I like your first sentences, and I like the observant central female characters.
I liked the first sentence for the first Murderbot by Martha Wells: “I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites.” The sentence introduced me to an unexpected and interesting voice, instead of a soulless murdering psycho robot.
I know. I wasn’t in the mood to read about an AI, but so many people here raved . . .
And I was hooked from the first line. Great great narrative voice.
The one that comes to mind for me is, “I was not sad when my brother died.” Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga. Perfection!
And the one I read when I was 8 in abridged form and later in full, “Squire Trelawney, Dr Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17-, and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn, and the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut, first took up his lodging under our roof.”
You’re in good company with long openings! 🤔😁
Hello Arghers, g’bye Arghers.
I noticed most of your first lines named the protagonist, which, as a reader, I really appreciate. I’m much more invested in a character if I know who I’m supposed to be invested in. But now I wonder, how do you introduce or show the name of a character if the story is told from first person POV? First person stories often leave me floundering for a while. Is that just the nature of that POV?
“Call me Ishmael.”
The easiest way is to have somebody call the protagonist by name. I really don’t like openings that are all first person info dump; I want to see the protagonist in active conflict with somebody. Liz getting picked up for speeding by Vince is an example (that’s my one first person opening); he reads her name off her license, but I think that’s on the second page. Aaronovitch doesn’t put “Peter” on the page until page nine. Murderbot almost never uses its name. I think the big impact of first person isn’t the name, but the idea of Me: we’re in this character’s head so they are acting as a surrogate for the universal Me.
The Temp by Serena Macksey. It’s first person and no one mentions the protagonist’s name till most of the way through the book. It’s brilliantly done. The book’s hilarious, strongly recommend.
Thank you. That makes sense.
I seem to be having some trouble posting and my comments are not appearing until much later. Which is why I posted my question twice. Sorry.
No worries, it’s a blog problem, not you. Mollie will get on it on Monday.
Your first lines give a great entry into story and tone.
I wouln’t put myself under too much pressure to write the perfect first sentence. It’s what comes after this promise to the readers that will stick.
At least imho.
With real books to browse I will give a chance to the first paragaph if not the first page. Nowadays with all the bookshops closed and my prefered books not available in the shops anyway (those in the original), I prefer to read the excerpt. This has to work as a hook. But these days, some authors seem to spend a lot of effort on that hook and quite often I find the rest not as carefully crafted.
Which makes me disppointed or angry.
I guess I had some very bad luck lately…
I’m reading so much more lately, so that’s contributing to my bad luck.
Is anybody else having problems with this website at the moment?
I tried to post a comment on Thursday and it didn’t appear in Good Book Thursday until I checked the blog on Friday. I was only able to see 14 comments in the Good Book Thursday blog on Thursday.
I was able to read your new blog post Crusie First Lines, a Critique but not able to read the comments until today, even though the website was telling me people had commented. It’s as if the website is freezing on me. I cleared the cache and cookies. I used a different device with another WiFi connection and had the same results. But nobody has mentioned a problem so I am confused.
Yes, I had similar problems (and may still be having them) when I used the work computer – but I’m having issues with that one, anyway. As in, haven’t been able to log in to work email all week. No cookies allowed, other overcontrol. Everything was fine (and missing comments appeared when I logged on at home.
This happened to me at the beginning of this year, somewhere around second week of January for about 10 days. Couldn’t get here and if I did, couldn’t post. I don’t know what resolved it.
I’d noticed a lot of double posted comments.
I’ll ask Mollie.
I’ve been getting weird error messages that won’t let me post. I usually have to wait about ten minutes and try again.
Secure Connection Failed
An error occurred during a connection to arghink.com. PR_END_OF_FILE_ERROR
The page you are trying to view cannot be shown because the authenticity of the received data could not be verified.
Please contact the website owners to inform them of this problem.
Thanks for that; I’ve sent it to Mollie.
I’ve e-mailed Mollie.
Thank you! Thank you! For this post 💕
I loved seeing your opening lines in one place- and to have you dissect them?
A crash course in what a good opening line is and is not. (and how to create a good one)
I agree with above- yours are better first lines than most – they pull me in every time because they set a mood- you can hear the voice in that first sentence- feel what she feels- snarky or irritable or whatever – we get the why right away- it’s almost intangible – (so I really enjoyed your explanation of how you do it)
Your first lines always let me know we’re on a fun ride for the rest of the book 😊
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?”
Completely off topic but Hard Time by Jodi Taylor is insanely cheap at only .99 cents on Nook today.
I really like the Time Police books. Maybe because St. Mary’s got so grim there and the Time Police protagonists, while having lousy-to-terrible childhoods, are so indestructible.
Me too. I stopped reading St. Mary’s because of the grimness, can’t wait for the next time police.
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”
Ona completely different note….Roarke smirks. Not sure why it works on him but it does.
Smirking does not work on anyone.
Dick Francis has great beginnings. My favorite is from STRAIGHT.
I inherited my brother’s life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother’s life, and it nearly killed me.
I loved than beginning!
That’s a really good book, too.
The first line that always comes to my mind is “The last camel collapsed at noon.”
That’s from Ken Follett’s The Key to Rebecca.
Elizabeth Peters also titled one of her Amelia Peabody novels The Last Camel Died At Noon.
Doesn’t mention the protagonist, but it sure makes me want to know what could be so bad that it laid out camels in the middle of the day.
I really like that first sentence from Quinn’s book. Its length works for me; it emphasizes her frustration.
I love the first sentence of Faking It. It introduces us to Matilda Goodnight, it tells us she’s an artist (painter) who regards what she’s doing by painting a mural of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers as a terrible sin, and that she has committed other sins, but none as bad as this one. And that’s what this book is about, Tilda and her sins.
Huh. Hadn’t thought of it that way.
I’m late to the party, but I’ve read thousands of books, including all the Crusies, and have a collection of more than 300 opening lines saved on the computer. I even have opening lines of books that don’t exist! So I have some credentials.
There are two kinds of successful opening lines: the kind that makes you want to know what happens next, and the kind that makes you want to know what the author will say next. The first kind is better commercially, but I tend to look for the second kind.
Examples of the first kind:
“I can get you a cheaper ticket if you let me amputate your legs: I can even take your thighs as a deposit,” said the travel agent.
“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
“I was sixteen the second time I had my first kiss.”
Examples of the second kind:
“ It is a truth universally acknowledged …”
“As I sat in the bath tub, soaping a meditative foot and singing, if I remember correctly, ‘Pale Hands I Loved Beside the Shalimar,’ it would be deceiving my public to say that I was feeling boomps-a-daisy.”
“Matilda Goodnight stepped back from her latest mural …”
But sometimes you can get both together:
“In a city by the sea which was once called St. Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad, then, much later, St. Petersburg again, there stood a long, thin house on a long, thin street. By a long, thin window, a child in a pale blue dress and pale green slippers waited for a bird to marry her.”
“I am a good Christian girl and I am so ashamed.
“Up until forty-eight hours ago I had never tasted alcohol, kissed a boy, worn anything sleeveless or sung a song in public at the top of my lungs using suggestive and inappropriate lyrics. I had never kidnapped anyone or held up a convenience store at gunpoint or stolen a convertible. I don’t even have a driver’s license.”
“After my sister, Zoë, shot the mailman, Mama grounded her for twenty-four hours and made her miss the big dance over at the Grange Hall in Xenia, but Zoë said it was worth it just to hear old Buster scream, and she didn’t care anyway because her boyfriend, Nick, is away at boot camp so there’s not much fun in Zoë’s life except for taking out the occasional public servant with a beebee gun.”
Editing is good, Jenny, but don’t second-guess your successes.
I’d forgotten all about Zoe, Don. Thanks for the reminder.
There are some excellent first lines in there. Is the boompsadaisy one Wodenouse?
Yes, “Bertie Wooster Sees It Through”
You can always tell Wodehouse. Amazing voice.
And thanks for quoting me, too (g).
It’s the meditative foot. Classic Wodehouse.
Suggestion – “Petal Revell smiled at the frog sized man in the palm of her left hand, trying to seem calm and positive.”
Or possibly ‘… frog shaped man …’
The problem is, readers would have to stop to think about that. “Frog-shaped man” takes some translation. Better to put something in the next sentence, I think.
I’ve been lurking on your blog for a while and never left a comment, but I feel like I must step in to defend a line I love. I love the beginning of Faking It. I hear your critique and acknowledge you raise good points, but the opening highlights Tilda’s inner conflict, and I read that book as being in large part about Tilda’s coming to grips with her heritage and her eventual assertion of her own independent identity over that heritage. The opening reflects Tilda’s identity crisis. I always read that as central to the book.
Anyway thanks for writing your books and your blog–I love both!
Welcome to Argh, Sonja!
I’ve been thinking about this, and it really depends on whether Faking It is a romance (in which case, start with Tilda meeting Davy in the closet) or women’s fiction (in which case start with Tilda and the mural). Since I never really thought about genre while I was writing it, I have no idea, but I’m glad you like it!
I love the “Cast in…” series by Michelle Sagara. Pretty much all the books start with one of the routine faults of the protagonist. I like best:
“Private Kaylin Neya was in time for work and the world hadn’t ended.”
One of the Riddlemaster of Hed books starts with a memorable line that I can’t quite quote because it has been about 5 years since I read it and I don’t have it here. Something about “Every spring 3 things came to the island of Hed, something I can’t remember, something about a new shipment of wine and a fight”. I wish I had the exact quote because it is lovely.
The Darkest Road has a great first page but you need the whole thing, not just the first sentence
““Do you know the wish of your heart?”
Once, when Kim Ford was an undergraduate, young for university and young for her age, someone had asked her that question over cappuccino on a first date. She’d been very impressed. Later, rather less young, she’d often smiled at the memory of how close he’d come to getting her into bed on the strength of a good line and a way with waiters in a chic restaurant. “
While you would never guess this is the start of the 3rd book in a high fantasy series, I still think it is a great start
Comments are closed.