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.


Mocha with Linda said...

I wish the author whose book I reviewed yesterday had read this. Maybe she wouldn't have had the first sentence be a 3-word one that takes God's name in vain!

Jessie at Blog Schmog said...

I too have recently read a disappointing book where the first two chapters are only set up. THEN the hook. I stuck it out because the premise is intriguing enough.

Linda brings up a question I had. In Christian novels are there cuss words that are "acceptable". I almost feel like a heathen typing it :)

Jason said...

Linda, FWIW, if I saw that in the opening of a Christian novel I would immediately be sucked in...because it's not what you expect from the average Christian novel.

Jason said...

Best Opening Line Ever:

"The nun hit me in the mouth and said, 'Get out of my house.'"

from James Scott Bell's Try Darkness. I still grin every time I think of it.

Jessie- Always an interesting topic! I encourage you to check out Mike Duran's recent post about this.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Cuss words are still considered unacceptable by most Christian fiction publishers. It's for a good reason--the readers don't want them. A Christian novel that includes such a word takes a terrible gamble. It's likely to lose more readers than gain them. Although some acceptance has come in the last few years, depending on what word you're talking about. For example, in 2002 my publisher didn't want me to use the word "whore" as one character described another. I'd be more likely to get away with that today. Also the word "hell." I've seen that in a few novels recently, when five years ago it would have been more frowned on. But still today it depends on the publisher and the genre. It's all about not offending the target audience.

Anonymous said...

This is just me but when I go to the Christian bookstore to buy a book to read and it has cuss words in the trash it goes. I could go to Barnes and Noble if I wanted to read that.

Anonymous said...

Christian novels should NOT have any cuss words in them. I read Christian novels because I know that I can read them and not cringe waiting for the bad language to start. I hate cuss words and hate it when talented writers think they have to put them in their books. Christian novel should be held to a higher standard ....we as christians are ambassadors to Christ and we should be careful how we conduct ourselves. What kind of message would that send if Christian books had cussing all through them.

MommaMindy said...

Great points on that first stunning first line. Useful for my own writing, but I guess I have been practcing it by the number of books I peruse and put down.

I agree with the cussing issue - I buy Christian literature with the purpose of wanting words of my mouth and the mediations of my heart be acceptable in HIs sight. I bought a book from a Christian writer for my son, and we devestated to find it had two swear words and nothing about the Lord. Garbage can!

Lena Nelson Dooley said...

Here are the two first lines in my upcoming novel, LOVE FINDS YOU IN GOLDEN, NEW MEXICO.

"Are you plumb loco?" Jeremiah Dennison's loud retort bounced around the main room of the adobe house and returned to mock him. "Where did you get such a harebrained idea?"