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Author Topic: Importance Of The First Line
theokaluza
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In the fragments and feedback forum, I just posted the first thirteen lines of a novel I'm writing. One of the problems I'm having with it is that my first couple of pages are kind of weak, and the meat doesn't start until a little ways into the story.

This is obviously a problem.

So I got to thinking: What books have done it right, and what was so right about the way they did it? The first and most obvious example (and also the best first line I've ever read) is from Stephen King's The Dark Tower I.

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Not only does this line tell something about the story, it basically tells the whole story. I find myself wondering, did King write that line first, or did he go back and add it in afterwards? Can this sort of impact simply be had by looking at your whole story, and compacting it into a single, short sentence? Another good one is from John Steakley's Armor.

He drank alone.

From such a short opening statement, we learn loads about the character. He's a loner. He's isolated. He can't relate well to other people. He might be an alcoholic. Probably, his peers don't like him very much.

Another decent example is from Fredrich Pohl's Gateway.

My name is Robinette Broadhead, in spite of which I am male.

Written in first person, this works perfectly. He's insecure with himself, right down to his name. He probably has resentments against his parents for cursing him with such a girly name. You know, right off, that the book is mostly going to be about Robinette's internal struggles, and more than that, you know it without needing to be told it. It's shown to you.

What's the purpose of this thread? I don't know. Try to find other examples of great opening statements, and try to figure out what makes it good. Maybe we'll learn something about our own writing in the process.


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djvdakota
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Excellent approach, theo. If you don't know how to do it yourself, study the works of someone who does.

I could easily spend an hour in the library just reading first lines or first paragraphs or first pages. When you do--especially for books and authors that are known sellers--you find that the advice of all those unpublished Hatrackers is pretty on the spot. Those first thirteen lines really DO matter!


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wetwilly
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First off, let me qualify this by saying I think first lines are overrated. A good first line can certainly add something to a story, but a bad (or less good) first line will not ruin it.

That said:

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into a giant insect."

Kafka's "Metamorphosis. Don't much care for the story, but what a great first line. Bam! There it is right up front. What's this story about? Gregor got turned into a bug.

"There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry."

Anthony Burgess, "A Clockwork Orange." Tells you up front, "This book is going to be something very different."

"At the beginning of July, during an extremely hot spell, towards evening, a young man left the closet he rented from tenants in S----y Lane, walked out to the street, and slowly, as if indecisively, headed for the K---n Bridge."

Dostoyevsky, "Crime and Punishment." This one is different. The other two I like because they're good hooks. This one I like because it nicely sums up the personality of the main character and several of the major themes of the book, although you might not realize all that until you've read the rest of the book.


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Kolona
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There are some web sites that list all kinds of first lines. Just search "first lines" or something similar and you'll find them.
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KatFeete
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Hmmm.

<grabs a handful of books from the nearest pile>

"There were four of us - George, and William Samuel Harris, and myself, and Montmorency."

"It was a dumb thing to do but it wasn't that dumb."

"It was a moonless night, which was good for the purposes of Solid Jackson."

"Call!"*

So... pretty good mix there. My conclusions?

First lines are important. So are second lines, and third lines, and fourth. So are first paragraphs. So's the last line of the book. So's the random bit in the middle....

Y'know, come to think of it, I think I'd best just make the whole darn book as good as I can. *grin*

Seriously, while I agree that from a marketing standpoint it's important to have a good first line, no one's going to buy the book based on the first line... and I doubt an agent or publisher is going to dump a story into the reject pile based on the first line either. Unless it's got a typo in.

There's a limited amount of angst and rewrite time that I'll spend on any given sentence. Even the first.

*Credits: Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat; Robin McKinley, Sunshine; Terry Pratchett, Jingo; Robert Asprin, Little Myth Marker. The Jerome book, which I'd say has the least compelling first line of the lot, has never been out of print since its original run in 1889.

[This message has been edited by KatFeete (edited February 18, 2005).]


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theokaluza
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quote:
Seriously, while I agree that from a marketing standpoint it's important to have a good first line, no one's going to buy the book based on the first line...
Of course not. That's not what I'm saying at all.

Also, I don't understand why, from a marketing standpoint, a good first line would be necessary... or even wanted. Nothing I'm claiming has anything to do with how much money a book would make.

That being said, a first line is still important to me, as the writer. I've never written an amazing opening sentence, and I'm not sure that I'll ever write something as powerful as "I am Ishmael." or "The man in black..."

The only reason that I want to know what makes a good opening sentence a good opening sentence is simply so that I can do it, too.

And that one from A Clockwork Orange made me put the book down. Honestly. I guess it was more the first couple of paragraphs, but god damn, there's more slang on a single page of that book than are in all of the other books I've ever read put together. And that's a lot.

[This message has been edited by theokaluza (edited February 19, 2005).]


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Tess
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Good post theokaluza, thank you. My problem is, I don't always know if the opening line is a good one until I know the story. This applies to published works as well as my own writing. I often don't like the first 13 of published works, to boot.

In this forum we're asked to critique the first 13 out of context.

As a writer, you don't always know how to write the beginning until you've written the end. That's a tough concept when put into practice. Do I provide a hook, do I summarize the crux of the story?

If you think the first couple of pages of your novel is weak, maybe it's not the opening line or the first few pages. It might be the place you're beginning your story.

I'm going through he same struggles you are.


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KatFeete
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quote:
Also, I don't understand why, from a marketing standpoint, a good first line would be necessary... or even wanted. Nothing I'm claiming has anything to do with how much money a book would make.

Forgive me, then; I've misunderstood you.

The majority of people I see who are fussing about first lines are concerned about the fact that agents and publishers usually ask for the first few chapters or pages of a manuscript, from which they'll judge whether the rest of the story is worth bothering with. Add to this that there's been many and public remarks to the effect that plenty of editors never get past the first paragraph of a work.

The effect of knowing this is for people to obsessively rewrite the first page or chapter of their story, often to the point of not writing any of the others.

Insofar as first lines go... I notice that a fair amount of the first lines that have been cited as especially good are from first-person novels. This fits with my observations, that the first lines that incite the most positive response from a modern audience usually invoke a character immediately. People are interested in other people. The better ones say either something about the person or something about a conflict the person's involved in; the best do both. This gets the reader instantly interested in reading more about this person and these events.

Opening lines describing the weather, the scenery, bits of technology, et cetera, particularly when it's described in an authorial voice rather than the distinctive voice of the character, don't rate as well.

If you're having trouble with your first few pages, perhaps that's what you're looking for. It's okay not to have much plot early on, but if you're not doing some strong characterization instead, people are likely to get bored.


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Tess
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KatFeete, I think you’re dead on in this one:

quote:
first lines that incite the most positive response from a modern audience usually invoke a character immediately. People are interested in other people. The better ones say either something about the person or something about a conflict the person's involved in; the best do both.

This is tends to be a literary approach, in my estimation, because literature focuses on character so often. Other genres use it as well, of course. I’m struggling through The Da Vinci Code right now, which is the exact opposite. I don’t like the writing. How does Brown’s opening line grab you?

quote:
Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

It grabs me pretty much the way the rest of the book does—too much action, dependence on the snob appeal of title and cultured settings, and flat characterization. Yet the book is a hit, and I’m in the minority with my opinions as far as the general public goes.

Pulling from Christine’s recent post from another thread, you advocate the conflict hook. What do you think of sympathy, concern, and weirdness?


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MichelleAnn
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"Death is my beat." The Poet by Michael Connelly. (Not at all sure I got the spelling of the last name right.)

If someone has paid $8.00 for a book, they will give it more than a couple pages to get good. I don't think that's the issue though. The issue is getting the book read by someone that will want to publish it or represent it. It's crucial to make your effort stand out right away because there are a lot of manuscripts out there and nobody that can do you some good is going to tough it out for long.

The publisher wants nice little reviews that claim it was a roller coaster ride from the beginning. The reader wants to be engrossed from early on. (A reader that says that it got better is damning the writer with very faint praise.)Anyone that reads wants to know what's in it for them immediately! It's not like you can stand behind the person digging through the slush pile and tell them that it is worth it to stick around ... and the response would still be to make the beginning better.

If you have to explain it - you've lost!
'Chelle Ann


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Lord Darkstorm
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"The First Five Pages" is a book that explains the items an editor looks for. This book doesn't tell how they decided to keep a manuscript...but things looked for to reject it. It also gives a good perspective of the editor mind, which is not the point of finding a good manuscript, but finding a reason to reject it and move on to the next one.

We tend to think in terms of what will make an editor like the story, while the editor is thinking of how fast they can find a reason to reject it. Enlightening.


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Tanglier
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"Andy English breezes by the doorman and into the party." is the best first line I've read in the Fragments section. But if you have figured out how to write a good story, figuring out the first line is a cinch, I imagine. In other words, you have bigger fish to fry.
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MichelleAnn
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I recently made this a first line:

“I see from your resume that your only acting experience is a tampon commercial.”

LOL, not proud.
'Chelle Ann

[This message has been edited by MichelleAnn (edited February 19, 2005).]


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KatFeete
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quote:
Pulling from Christine’s recent post from another thread, you advocate the conflict hook. What do you think of sympathy, concern, and weirdness?

I'm divided on the conflict hook. I've seen it done very well. On the other hand, I increasingly encounter a first line written just because the author has heard, as MichelleAnn has:

quote:
The publisher wants nice little reviews that claim it was a roller coaster ride from the beginning.

But if the rest of the book isn't action-filled - if the situation posited by the first line is something the author invented just to give tension - I get annoyed. The first line is, in a way, a primer. It tells you what to expect. If you don't deliver on that promise you've done more harm than good.

You must interest your readers immediately. What's often overlooked is that action isn't all that interesting. Certainly not in a book, where one has to visualize all those fancy karate moves instead of seeing them. *grin* Thus an action-filled start to a book isn't that interesting.

What's interesting is people. When I said before that good opening lines say something about the conflict, I meant it - but it's important not to confuse conflict with action. Conflict can be something as loud and big as discovering a murder or as small and quiet as laying down a pen:

quote:
I sat back in my chair, jabbed the cap onto my pen, threw it into the drawer, and abandoned myself to the flood of satisfaction, relief, and anticipation that was let loose by that simple action.

That's from Laurie King's bestseller A Monstrous Regiment of Women, which I recommend if you like mysteries but more if you like good characters, because - as you can probably guess from the opening line - it's the characters, not the mystery or the action, for which one reads the book.

Evoking excitement in your first line is fine. Sympathy, wonder, concern, a sense of weirdness are also fine. Curiousity is probably essential. What's important is that you evoke something, some sense of connection that leads them to read the next sentence, that you do so coherently, and that you don't pour all your effort inot the first page or two and then go off and write an inferior or completely different book.

I still caution against worrying too much about the first few pages, though, especially if you haven't finished the whole book, but even if you have. It's true that publishers and agents often don't make it any further. However, if you look at Teresa Nielsen-Hayden's list of reasons manuscripts get rejected (scroll down to section three) you'll notice that the first six reasons manuscripts are rejected, amounting in her estimation to 60-75% of the total rejections, aren't even story related. They are rather things like "Author is on bad terms with the Muse of Language" or "Author can write basic sentences, but not string them together in any way that adds up to paragraphs." #7 is the first that could even be affected by the content of your first line, meaning that, if you're even worrying about this, you're in the top fifty percent and the chances are good that more than the first few pages of your story will get read.

Similarly, though there are a few people out there who may buy or reject a book based on the first line, more are buying because, say, there's a Neil Gaiman cover quote on the front. Or the back cover blurb is interesting. Or the little one-page excerpt at the front looked nice.

First lines are important. But there's a lot of other stuff out there that's more important. Budget your angst.


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MichelleAnn
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Interesting site, Kat. I'm enjoying checking it out.

Writers do take rejection personally. I know I do. I think I handle criticism very well and appreciate honesty, but there have been a few scathing critiques that have had me in a funk for a day or two here and there.

I figure that if I want to play in the big leagues, I had best learn to be tough. I don't ever want to be like one of those people on American Idol that act like people are criticizing them just to be mean. (I also love when they apparently think they should make it through because they're nice ... like it's Miss Congeniality!)
'Chelle Ann - thinking of just going back to Michelle.


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catnep
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So, out of curiousity, why the possible switch back to Michelle?

Here's a book I love, which I admit the characters are the highlight, but it is not written from one POV and does not start with a character. I thought it was clever and fit the story well, but you might not:

"The sun sets in the west (just about everyone knows that), but Sunset Towers faced east." (The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin)


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Pyre Dynasty
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I wonder how a line like

Hi.

would be recived.


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MichelleAnn
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When I registered I didn't even bother to just use Michelle; I assumed it would be taken, so I tacked on my middle name for insurance.

The thing is that I don't feel like a Michelle Ann or a 'Chelle Ann (although a fair amount of people call me 'Chelle). Both choices come off as cloying and I'm getting sugar shock.
Michelle

[This message has been edited by MichelleAnn (edited February 19, 2005).]


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Jaina
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I'm a newbie here, and this is my first post. But I saw you all posting your first lines, and I thought I'd throw in my two bits. My favorite first line is actually from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Austen's style is kind of heavy (but, then, at the time, it was clear, simple English), but I love how point-blank and off the wall that line is. Certainly not what I'd expected when I picked the book up. I love openers like that: they take something that everybody knows to be true, but never really knows how to put succinctly, and turns it into what I can only seem to describe as a "zinger."

As for Pyre Dynasty's "Hi," I think, in that case, it would depend more on the second line then on the first. Though I'd keep reading just to see what was going on. There are probably infinite places you could take something like that, after all.


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catnep
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yes, a very sassy line, don't you think? Definitely fitting with Jane Austen's style.

I think "Pride and Prejudice" was her best. Most probably would not agree with this, but i thought the movie versions of "Sense and Sensibility" and "Emma" were more enjoyable then the reading. Really, I don't normally favor movie versions over books (honest) but I did in those cases. But now I am gabbing.


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Tess
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Back to Katfeete's comments. You make a lot of good points. Thank you. I enjoyed the link too.

My definition of conflict is different than yours.

quote:
When I said before that good opening lines say something about the conflict, I meant it - but it's important not to confuse conflict with action. Conflict can be something as loud and big as discovering a murder or as small and quiet as laying down a pen.

I made the assumption that conflict involved two people. Everybody picks their ears up at the sound of a disagreement. Discovering a murder and laying down a pen are actions in my book. If the person murdered is the viewpoint character's spouse or child, that's sympathy. The line about putting down a pen is characterization through action, in my opinion. I'm getting insight into the viewpoint character in the way she puts the pen down.



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Survivor
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Yes, the character that you introduce in your first line doesn't have to be one of the major characters of the story itself. If your narrator is an interesting enough person, then that works just fine.

One important tip for learning to write (or do anything) well. Never try to learn from the example of work that you personally didn't like or understand, just because it was popular with other people.

The really huge bestsellers are "written" by people that are already famous and are sold for that reason and that reason only. Nobody reads them, nobody wants to read them, and nobody cares that nobody reads them or wants to read them. A similar effect is at work with most new "must read" books, they are sold entirely on the basis of the contraversy surrounding the supposed subject matter. Nobody cares whether the writing is any good. I listened to what would probably be a couple of pages of The Da Vinci Code and found the writing hilariously bad in every way possible.

Remember that there are roads to infamy as well as to fame. Who want's to be Jim Theis?


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Tanglier
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I think it takes one or three people to have a conflict.

I actually think that the conflict happens in the breast of one person. I say three people because you have two powers on either side and the agent in the middle making the decision. Romeo's conflict involved Juliet and his family. I think a real conflict involves and agent's decision between at two things, and either way, that agent loses.

If you are talking about a regular two man fight. A fight is a fight, but I don't know if that's a good story.


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Tess
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I did some more thinking on the conflict thing overnight. I like what Tanglier said, "conflict happens in the breast of one person."

Actually, I've heard of three kinds of conflict: man versus self, man versus man, man versus nature. All of these take place in the breast of the protagonist if the writing is good. When reading books we care about the characters more than the physical events that happen in a book. If there's a murder or a divorce (as discussed in another thread recently), I'm less interested in the event, more interested in what it means to the main characters.

I think there is also a difference when we look at conflict developed through the entire story as opposed to the conflict we use as the hook for the first few paragraphs of a story, the first 13 lines plus some. There's something to be said for the economy of the one on one conflict for the initial hook. The others will work too, of course. But some readers will consider the start slow if the point of view character comes off as too internal with his concerns. Conversely, dealing with three characters might lengthen the start of the story and make some readers wish the "roller coaster" would start sooner.

I'm not always a fan of the roller coaster starting immediately, and I don't think a roller coaster is necessary in all instances, but that's beside the point. I think it boils down to the type of story you're trying to tell. Sometimes you can't write the beginning until you write the end. Sometimes you need to reach the end so you know what kind of promise you need to make to the reader at the beginning.


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Kolona
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The whole of a book/story doesn't necessarily rise and fall on the first line, but the first line works as part of the composite of the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page, the first five pages, the first chapter. The better each or any aspect is, the more likely the book/story will be accepted for publication.

Having said that, it bears repeating that a lot of this is subjective. I can go down a list of first lines, even those posted here, and not agree with what others think are really good or bad first lines.

Theokaluza mentioned a problem with the first few pages, which can be more of a problem than merely the first line, just as a problem with the first chapter would be a greater problem than a problem with the first paragraph. Obviously, the greater the amount of text involved the bigger the problem is and the more intense the solution. If you're dealing with a weak beginning, there could be a structural problem, like not starting at the proper point. Perfecting a super first line probably wouldn't overcome that.

(How embarrassing. I always thought "tow the line" was a nautical phrase. (See Teresa Nielsen-Hayden's list of reasons manuscripts get rejected, section three, #3.) But this gave me my first occasion to use my Roget's Thesaurus of Phrases. It really is "toe the line." Amazing. I wonder how many other fractured phrases I have lurking in my mind???)

[This message has been edited by Kolona (edited February 20, 2005).]


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KatFeete
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Not to resurrect a dead topic, but this link might be of interest:

http://openinghooks.us/

I still hold to my view that opening lines are overemphasized. But the site is quite interesting. Hmmm.


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