Once upon a time. . .
it was tradition to begin a story with those words. Today, making first impressions with first lines is a skill all authors need.
Today’s reader will accept the “once upon a time” opening only for a certain type of story. Other types of stories need a different style of opening. But regardless of the genre or style of fiction, the beginning of the book is critical. In fact, often readers will pick up a book at the library or store and read the first few paragraphs before taking the book home. If the first lines grab the reader, the book goes home. On the other hand, if the first lines of the book make the reader go ‘bleh ‘ the book is put down and never opened again.
If you ‘ve written and rewritten first lines and first chapters of your book, trying to achieve that perfect first impression and are still struggling to create a great opening, it ‘s time to step away from the manuscript for a little study session.
Studying First Lines
For our purposes here, I ‘m going to arbitrarily define the opening of the story as the first 100 words. In my personal quest for a great opening, I chose to study the first five pages of ten favorite novels. Obviously, the first five pages of ten different novels would make a very long post. So today we ‘ll stick to just two examples.
Below are the openings of two of my favorite novels. Take a moment and read them, three times. Read once as a reader. Next, read it aloud. Finally, read it as a writer.
by Frank Herbert, Ace Books 1965
In the weeks before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.
It was a warm night at Castle Caladan, and the ancient pile of stone that had served the Atreides family as home for twenty-six generations bore that cooled-sweat feeling it acquired before a change in the weather.
The old woman was let in by the side door down the vaulted passage by Paul’s room and she was allowed a moment to peer in at him where he lay in his bed.
In three lines of Dune, Frank Herbert has given us a location, a life-changing event, the main character, and a mysterious presence. He created tension, a sense of foreboding, and a sense that something momentous is about to happen. Are you hooked? I sure am.
Read this passage aloud. Notice the rhythm, the cadence of his words. Notice the sound and feel of the words: Arrakis, scurrying, crone, Castle Caladan, ancient, Atreides.
Notice it’s final scurrying and unbearable frenzy. Did you catch the references to change? What else did you notice?
Okay. Let’s try another passage from another book.
by Orson Scott Card, Tor 1987
Little Peggy was very careful with the eggs. She rooted her hand through the straw till her fingers bumped something hard and heavy. She gave no never mind to the chicken drips. After all, when folk with babies stayed at the roadhouse, Mama never even crinkled her face at their most spetackler diapers. Even when the chicken drips were wet and stringy and made her fingers stick together, little Peggy gave no never mind. She just pushed the straw apart, wrapped her hand around the egg, and lifted it out of the brood box. All this while standing tiptoe on a wobbly stool, reaching high above her head.
In this 108 words by Orson Scott Card there is a strong sense of character, of the roadhouse, of the society in which little Peggy lives. I like Peggy. Do you? Do you want to know more about her? Can you feel the straw and the sticky eggs? Can you see the wobbly stool with little Peggy reaching for the nests? Do you want to know what happens next?
Now, look for what each of the opening passages above have in common. Both of the examples have a strong sense of character, of place, and each evoke a mood that promises something is about to happen.
Armed with this information I can now go back to my manuscript. I know the elements I need in my story and I can re-craft my opening to make the first words count.
Your turn–Making First Impressions with First Lines
Copy the openings of your favorite books into your word processor or journal or onto a piece of paper. Study those openings.
Read the passages aloud. Listen to the cadence, the rhythm of the words. Look for character, place, time, mood, and foreshadowing. Notice words that pique your interest.
While reading the beginning lines of one of your favorites, ask yourself questions about each individual passage. Why this character? Why this location? Why now? How does it make me feel?
Then return to your manuscript. Look for what it has in common with your favorite books. Strength those things and I’ll bet you will have a much stronger beginning. In fact, you may even craft first lines that your reader will favorite.
From The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
The boy’s name was Santiago.
Dusk was falling as the boy arrived with his herd at an abandoned church. The roof had fallen in long ago, and an enormous sycamore had grown on the spot where the sacristy had once stood.
He decided to spend the night there. He saw to it that all the sheep entered through the ruined gate, and then laid some planks across it to prevent the flock from wandering away during the night. There were no wolves in this region, but once an animal had strayed during the night, and the boy had had to spend the entire next day searching for it.
This draws me in and I can see exactly where Santiago must spend the night with his flock and how much he cares for the flock. He’s brave and not superstitious (You wouldn’t find me in an abandoned church.) He’s resilient and can adapt to his environment to suit his needs. And once he’s made a mistake he never makes it twice. All that in one hundred words!! Wish I could do that!
Oh, yes. That is a very nice beginning. You analysis is good. The first hundred words also tells you how very long this church has been abandoned, and it makes you wonder . . . . Excellent.
I hear you, Christine. So far my openings have not been as good as I wish them to be. All I can do, is keep trying and keep studying those I believe do it very well.
Thanks for sharing!
interesting exercise, Lynnette. I’m going to give it a whirl, since I’m struggling with the first line for my second book. i’m in editing mode and it needs something.
I think you’ll find it helpful. Good luck with your editing, Louise!
Great idea! First lines are such a challenge – they have such a difficult job! I’m going to try this next time I have trouble with my first line. Thanks!
You’re welcome, Jennette. Yes, first lines are a challenge. It takes some real skill and creativity to get all that work done in just a few lines.
You picked two great book beginnings, Lynette. First page is something I’ll definately be revising. I might even end up starting from a different point of the story.
Here’s the first lines from a recent first book of a series I read (Patricia Briggs’ Moon Called). It’s not the best thing ever but it works well. It has a hook and it provides information about the character and her surroundings.
“I didn’t realize he was a werewolf at first. My nose isn’t at its best when surrounded by axle grease and burnt oil – and it’s not like there are a lot of stray werewolves running around. So when someone made a polite noise near my feet to get my attention I thought he was a customer.”
Hmmm. Not a bad beginning from Patricia Briggs. It almost makes me want to read it and I’m not usually interested in reading werewolf stories. Thanks for your contribution, Reetta.