Friday, January 29, 2010
Three Steps To Writing a Stunning First Line
A novelist (or nonfiction writer) has about 30 seconds with the typical book browser to land a sale. First the browser reads the back cover copy. Then she opens to the first page. If she likes the first line, she'll read on. First paragraph ... first page. You've got a sale. If she doesn't like the opening, you can kiss the sale goodbye. So do you really want that first line of yours to be a ho-hum sentence?
Here are three steps to reeling in the browser with your opening line:
1. Create a hook.
A hook imparts just enough information to raise questions. It makes the reader wonder, "Why, what, how?" What nugget can you tease the reader with? Something that will immediately raise far more questions than it answers.
2. Choose the best style.
Once you've decided on the hook, find its most intriguing form, or style, for your scene. Your hook can come in many forms: narrative statement, action, dialogue, self-perception, description, etc.
Narrative statement: Any man going on this mission wasn't coming back. (Amber Morn)
Action: They shoot the white girl first. (Paradise, Toni Morrison)
Dialogue: "Ever hear the dead knocking?" (Dark Pursuit)
Self-perception: Before the accident, I never had to seduce a man in the dark. (The Crossroads Cafe, Deborah Smith)
A note on action--if you go this route, make sure the action is different or shocking enough to demand attention. Toni Morrison's line certainly is. So is Jerry Jenkin's opening of Riven: With the man's first step, the others on the Row began a slow tapping on their cell doors. The more common action of a car skidding on a road, someone falling, even running from a pursuer just isn't compelling enough on its own, unless the sentence is worded in a very unusual way. Further in the book such action can be compelling because the reader knows the character involved and has built some empathy for him. But the reader doesn't know the character at all in the first line. Therefore the action on its own face has to be a hook.
3. Set the tone.
Your first line should carry the same tone--lightness or heaviness--that runs throughout your novel. The first two opening hooks above above carry a somber tone. They tell you the novels will deal with serious issues and are not likely to end with the world in perfect order. The third line has an eerie feel to it. The fourth grabs your heart. Here's one with a lighter tone:
Usually the dwarfs kept bringing him back--back to the circus and back to India. (A Son of the Circus, John Irving)
Yet even in that lighter tone, don't you sense a certain hopelessness about whatever's going on? The word back is used three times.
Tone, when used effectively, adds to the hook. Makes it even more intriguing.
Hook, style, and tone. That's how easy--and hard--the first line is. If you don't come up with a smashing first line as you write your opening scene, skip it and go on. You may not find it until the entire rest of the manuscript is written. That's okay. The right first line is worth sweating for.