I mentioned yesterday that I’m working on a new opening scene for my latest novel. That means, in part, crafting a new first sentence, which has me thinking about the beauty that is a wonderful opening line (and the difficulty of writing one).
Of course, you don’t have to get the first line right in the first draft, and this scene is in first draft territory. But right now the first line is awful.
Melinda Phinnean attempted to lay a low-cut linen dress on top of a locked travel case, but her brother’s feisty mutt grabbed a sleeve in its teeth and dragged the garment off.
With some slicing it could make a decent enough sentence, but for a first sentence, it accomplishes nothing that I like my first sentences to accomplish.
Every author, and every book, is different, so this is a hard post to write. I don’t want to come across as saying “if your first sentence doesn’t follow these guidelines it’s worthless and you need to recraft it, stat.”
Still, there are certain things I like my first sentences to do. I thought I’d share those things in the hopes of getting people thinking about the weight of their own first sentences.
- I keep my first sentences short, in an attempt to ease my readers into my story. This is in no small way related to my personal stylistic preference for clarity and simplicity. I establish my style upfront, and I make sure my readers don’t start out confused or questioning where they are.
- I want my first sentence to pack a punch. It’s easier for me to make an impact with something short but powerful. That’s where my writing is strongest. I make a point as succinctly as possible and then move on. Also, “packing a punch,” for me, largely means “someone is actively doing something.”
- I want my first sentence to raise interest in the story. Which leads back to “someone is actively doing something.” Action breeds interest. I like my first sentences to indicate that something is happening. People won’t want to keep reading if they don’t think anything intriguing is going on.
- I try to establish the tone of my story. It’s no coincidence that the first sentence of “The Crimson League” is the darkest first sentence of any of my novels. The first book in my trilogy is by far the most dystopian.
MY FAVORITE OF MY FIRST SENTENCES
My favorite of my first sentences is the one I just mentioned: from “The Crimson League.”
It’s not perfect by any means, but I feel it exemplifies everything I said above and does what I want it to do.
The autumn wind’s whistle died with a choke as Kora Porteg slammed her brother’s window.
It’s short, and it doesn’t involve anything a reader could misunderstand. It involves someone doing something. And words like “died,” “choke,” and “autumn” hint that wherever the characters are, the overall situation is probably not going to be positive.
Where the sentence could be better, possibly, would be if it involved direct, unequivocal tension of some kind to really draw a reader in.
Still, I think there’s an indirect tension there to drive curiosity. Why is Kora slamming a window? Slamming, opposed to closing? Did something startle her? Is she angry about something? If so, what?
So, those are my rambling thoughts about first lines, and how I go about them. Different styles and different tones lead to different kinds of first lines.
MY FAVORITE FIRST LINES FROM AMONG THE CLASSICS
Just as a treat, some of my favorite first lines. These are pretty standard, and you’re probably familiar with most–if not all–of them, but still, they’re fun to revisit 🙂
- “Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing” – Don Quixote de la Mancha. (A great example of a first line setting tone. This is translated, of course, by Edith Grossman from the Spanish, “En un lugar de La Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme….”)
- “Call me Ishmael.” -Moby Dick. (It’s so plain, so simple, that it’s almost intriguing. What kind of narrator would start a story that way?)
- “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” -Pride and Prejudice. (I love the sarcastic and judgmental undertones.)
So, what are some of your favorite first lines? What do you love in a good first line?
Feel free to share the first line of your published book or WIP if you’d like! And make sure you drop by tomorrow. I think I want to explore the concept of dialogue as a first line and why I don’t like that set-up as a general rule.
I kind of wish I had thought to talk about first lines somewhere in “Writing for You,” but hey, I can always write a follow-up at some point 🙂
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