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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...*

First lines are difficult and fun. Just like the rest of writing.

First lines are important. They should seduce your reader, make it impossible for her to stop reading and draw her into the paragraph, page, chapter, and ultimately the book. Most of the advice I've ever seen on first lines is that they should pack a wallop with dialogue or action. Sure...with reservations. Have the boulder roll down the hillside toward the happy family picnic, the car blow up, the groom walk out of the church leaving the bride at the altar--if it's going to be that sort of book. Quite honestly the idea of a book going on in that sort of high dramatic vein makes me want to go and lie down with a nice cup of tea and fan myself.

We're talking about seduction, remember. The word seduction derives from the Latin word to lead. So I thought I'd pick out a few successful first lines and try and figure out what makes them work.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier). Read it aloud and feel the rhythm: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It's iambic pentameters, which you might interpret as a heartbeat, or the tug and pull of the sea. du Maurier doesn't have to explain where or what Manderley is--she's established it as a place of dreams, mystery, regret. And the mysteries of the heart and of the sea drive the book. Absolutely perfect.

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. (Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte)Now this is a really kickass first sentence for any book, any time. It doesn't start with something like "Oh, Mr. Rochester! Why didn't you tell me about your mad wife in the attic?" Compare it, for example, to the beginning of David Copperfield, Dickens's most biographical novel:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.

Dickens lays all his cards on the table: Here I am, this is what the book is about, and this is the sort of ironic voice you can expect to encounter. Oh, and never forget that you're reading a book and a work of fiction.

But Charlotte Bronte isn't nearly as helpful. We don't know who the characters are, where we are, or the setting. We have to figure that out. All we know is that someone can't do something, and if you think about it, that's what Jane Eyre is about--a woman whose formidable sense of will defines her, who will fight for what society will not allow her to do: Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart!

Here's the opening of my 2007 release The Rules of Gentility:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman of fortune and passable good looks amuses herself in London with fashion, philanthropic works, and flirtation, until a suitable gentleman makes an offer. I consider the pursuit of the bonnets and a husband fairly alike--I do not want to acquire an item that will wear out, or bore me after a brief acquaintance, and we must suit each other very well.

First off, it's a Jane Austen rip off. Pride and Prejudice begins, It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Now I thought I was being tremendously witty in paraphrasing Austen, but if I'd realized the whole mess of Austen-inspired books that would come out around the same time would do exactly the same thing, I think I would have chosen a different opening. I chose it, not because I was writing an Austen knock-off whoops, tribute, but because I wanted the reader to be immediately aware of where we were and the sort of rules that govern this particular society. I wanted my heroine Philomena to come across as a mix of hard-headedness and silliness, and to alert the reader that what they were seeing was what they were getting--no aspirations to an unlikely career or deep dark secrets.

My last, or possibly only, piece of wisdom is this: Don't worry too much about the first line when you start. Your first effort will be a placeholder. When you know a little more what your book is about you'll come up with an opener that will tease, seduce, entrance your reader.

Would anyone like to share their first line? Or a first line from a book you love?

*Dickens again. A Tale of Two Cities



At 7:32 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

LOVE the placeholder thought. Just get the book going; you can always go back.

"I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him." Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper's Apprentice. King is amazing.

'True mastery of mathematics required unwavering dedication and brooked no interruptions—
“Cook cannot complete dinner preparations, my lord. There appears to be a dead body in the kitchen.”
—Although some statements might justify a momentary loss of concentration.' (That's mine.)

At 7:58 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Janet, great first lines! Some of my very favorite opening lines were written by Carl Hiassen, who writes rolicking (but dark) comedies, usually set in South Florida. From his latest:

"On the second day of January, windswept and bright, a half-blood Seminole named Sammy Tigertail dumped a body in the Lostmans River." (Nature Girl)

At 8:07 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Gillian, your first sentence did its work for me -intrigued me. I love that dry, ironic voice.

Janet, it is a truth universally acknowledged that your beginning sentence of Rules of Gentility must be so unlike other Austen knock-offs--I mean tributes--that the others are green with envy. It makes me immediately smile and love that character!

My first sentence of The Vanishing Viscountess:
"The gale roared like a wild beast." -- rather the like boulder running down the hillside toward the family picnic!

At 10:52 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

One favorite book of mine is Mary Stewart's romantic suspense The Moon-Spinners. I reread it all the time. "It was the egret, flying out of the lemony grove, that started it." As a reader, I want to find out what started.

Another favorite book is Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns. It's opening line is "Three weeks after Granny Blakeslee died, Grandpa came to our house for his early morning snort of whiskey, as usual, and said to me, 'Will Tweedy? Go find yore mama, then run up to yore Aunt Loma's and tell her to git on down here. I got something to say. And I ain't a-go'n say it but once't." I don't know about the rest of you, but I want to hear what this character who starts his day with a snort of whiskey has to say.

I'm trying to be witty with my short story due today for BelleBooks--"A Tale of Two Kitties." My opening: "It was the best of cats, it was the worst of cats. It was the age of whisker lickin's, it was the age of feathered toys."

At 11:30 AM, Blogger doglady said...

Isn't Gillian's first line terrific! Love it, My Passion's Slave CP!

One of the best first lines I have ever read is :

The day I died started out bad and got worse. (From Undead and Unwed by Mary Janice Davidson) It is completely relateable - we've all had a day like that - and yet you go back and read and think Wait! She died?

The first line of my novel?

"You are going to murder me, aren't you?"

Any guesses as to what kind of story follows and more important, do you want to find out?

Mo h - I love those first lines. I am with you especially on the Cold Sassy one. I have to know what he is going to say! And I LOVE your Tale of Two Kitties line. Too cute for words!

Anyone recognize this one?

"Unhand her this instant!"

At 11:41 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Gillian: I LOVE King's Holmes/Russell series. Can't get into her contemporary series (with the exception of The Art of Detection, which crosses over). It feels like two different authors to me.

Very funny first line of your own! That would totally keep me reading.

Maureen: Love your kitty take off on A Tale of Two Cities. Have I mentioned that Musette had her own Christmass tree this year? (ducks)

Doglady: I'm also a huge fan of MJD, and that first line is a corker. Your first line has the intrigue thing going on, baby.
I don't recognize, "Unhand her this instant!"

At 11:50 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Here's a favorite first line of mine, from Terry Pratchett's Going Postal.

The flotillas of the dead sailed around the world on underwater rivers.

It has the same kind of alluring rythym you pointed out in the first line of Rebecca, Janet.

At 12:13 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Hey, Esri, my dogs and cats have a tree of their own too! It is decorated with my collection of dog and cat ornaments and all things dog and cat oriented. Tried actual dog biscuits one year. Won't do that again! The tree barely survived. The line from Going Postal is wonderful. Evocative and very musical.

At 12:19 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Doglady said, "Tried actual dog biscuits one year. Won't do that again!"

I hope you got video.

Musette's tinsel tree had little mirrored balls that caught the light. She batted at them and then watched the reflections dance around. It was all very sparkly.

At 12:40 PM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

Having just judged some contest entries, I'm very aware at the moment of how much a great opening can elevate a story. Of course, the rest of the book has to live up to that opening, but if there's a great first line, it puts me in a good frame of mind as a reader.

Here's the opening from the first book I sold, a YA titled Heartbreak River that will be out sometime in 2009:

I felt a bit like a drug dealer as I pressed the phone to my ear and listened to the order. Only my grandpa’s drug of choice was candy.

At 12:51 PM, Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Wow, some great first lines here! I love Laurie King's Holmes and Mary series and Carl Hiaasen too.

Come on, Doglady. Tell us what the mystery first line is. I have no idea at all.

At 3:07 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

More people that love L. King! Wonderful! Actually, I know her website has this really elaborate group of folks who talk endless Russell and Holmes, but I know if I start down that road it will be the end of life as I know it....I'd never have time for my own work...or my kids :)

Darling Doglady/Louisa, the very best thing about your story is that it totally lives up to your fab opening!

Diane, the beginning of your story that struck me HARD was the "sitting in the hold, reviewing his life, and found it wanting" (I'm sure that's not a direct quote). I could just picture him there, the ship tossing about, everyone else panicking, and him silent and thoughtful. Wow.

Mo--I would order that cat story today, really. Just to read it aloud to the four furry maniacs who actually run this house :)

Esri, you obviously have a cat with manners! I have one king of the hill, and three kittens that think they're human, cause we raised them from two weeks of age. No sense of boundaries AT ALL.

Trish-that opening made me grin, big time.

At 3:17 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Great first lines everyone! Makes me want to go work on my own.

Janet, I love your first line of your book. Very clever!

At 3:20 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Trish, the first line of your newly sold YA is really great!

At 5:13 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Man, I'm loving these first lines! They really do draw you in. At a recent writers' retreat, we swapped about 60 books, but before doing so, we took turns reading aloud the first line and deciding how great (or not) it was. Very instructive. As Janet says, they don't have to plunge you into a perilous situation in order to work.

I just pulled another Hiaasen book off my shelf to read the first line, and realized he doesn't even wait for the opening line to start setting the tone. You know the disclaimer at the front of the book that declares it a work of fiction? Here's Hiaasen's for Strip Tease:

"This is a work of fiction. All names and characters are either invented or used fictitiously. The events described are purely imaginary, although the accounts of topless creamed-corn wrestling are based on fact."

At 6:43 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Unhand her this instant!

Perhaps not on a par with "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." but I know this line....

It is from the 2006 RITA winner for Best Regency Romance, A Reputable Rake by.......

Diane Gaston!!

At 7:18 PM, Blogger doglady said...

And the Divine Ms G wins the prize! Yes, that is the first line of another of my favorites of hers. You have to admit it demands that you read on. Unhand whom? Where are we? What is going on? Bam, and you are in the story and what happens at that is just so much fun!

At 10:56 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Diane, the beginning of your story that struck me HARD was the "sitting in the hold, reviewing his life, and found it wanting" (I'm sure that's not a direct quote). I could just picture him there, the ship tossing about, everyone else panicking, and him silent and thoughtful. Wow.

Gillian, thank you.

At 10:46 AM, Blogger M. said...

janet - my first time on this blog. great post. LOVE your first line - i bought RoG yesterday and am happily delving in! will post a review on my blog shortly.


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