(first printed in the Willamette Writers newsletter in 2012)
The other day I was cheering up my son with a rerun of “So You Think You Can Dance” when a comment from one of the judges caught my attention. The choreographer critiquing the number loved the first moments, before the two dancers even began dancing—it was the way the female dancer was breathing. That sounds odd, I’m sure, but it was true. The dancer was breathing in character, beginning to paint the story of the piece from the very first note of music.
This, in turn, made me remember the moment right before Josh Krajcik (runner-up in “The X-Factor” season one) began his audition song. I could tell he was going to be a great singer because of the way he brought the microphone up to his face during the intro to the song—he knew what he was doing—he was already part of the song before his first note. And it was thrilling to anticipate how well he would do.
And this, in turn, made me think about the importance of the opening line of a novel. (Forgive me, writers of non-novels, but I’m going to use mostly examples from novels here.) The first impression people have of your book may technically be the cover art, the title, or the premise description on the dust jacket, but the first sentence of chapter one is the real beginning of your story.
Once on a Willamette Writers conference panel, two editors from Tor Books joked about reading manuscripts from the slush pile (which was the size of a small office.) They admitted that they’d read the first line of a novel. If it was bad they’d toss it and move on to the next. Especially if the first line was describing a sunset or sunrise. If the opening line was really bad they’d read it out loud to the other interns who were slushing it, laughing at the best of the worst. They would only read the first page of an unsolicited manuscript if they liked the first sentence.
You need a great opener to impress an agent or an editor (or that intern sitting in the slush pile room.) But that’s okay because you can write one (if you haven’t already.) I love a good first sentence. I stumbled upon a nice one for my novel, A Certain Slant of Light: “Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if you’re dead.” And I’m both a little shy and very proud to say that that line landed me on the British magazine Stylist’s “Best 100 Opening Lines From Books” list.
Here’s the story of how that opener came to be. When I had a rough draft of the book finished, I went to a writing workshop where the instructor told us to open our novels with action rather than a description. I looked at my first chapter and found that nothing happened until the second page when my ghost narrator looked up and saw a teenage boy staring her in the eyes. I moved that moment forward, in front of the description of where she was and what she was doing there. (Thank you, whomever was teaching that workshop.)
There are different kinds of great opening sentences:
Some first lines hook you—you want to read more even if you don’t know why. ”The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a
French scullery maid named Annette.” S. Morgenstern, The Princess Bride. There is a long introduction by William Goldman, but here is the beginning of the actual story. I had to know why this fact was important. I was sucked in instantly.
Some first lines give you the premise of the book in a nutshell, a great way to enroll you in the story immediately. “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan in August of 1974.” Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex.
Some first lines give a feel for the whole story, hinting at the shape it will take cover to cover. “I who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as ‘Claudius the Idiot’, or ‘That Claudius’, or ‘Claudius the Stammerer’, or ‘Clau-Clau-Claudius’ or at best as ‘Poor Uncle Claudius’, am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the ‘golden predicament’ from which I have never since become disentangled.” Robert Graves, (you guessed it) I, Claudius.
Not all character-driven openers, like the Graves quote above, summarize the whole plot. Some merely speak with such vivid voices that the character who is speaking comes alive and calls you to follow them. “’When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,’ Papa would say, ‘she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.’” Katherine Dunn, Geek Love.
Some first lines are all about non-character narrators—it’s the author’s voice (rather than a specific character) that’s irresistible. “The sun shone, having no alternative, on nothing new.” Samuel Beckett, Murphy.
Some first lines are simply great even if you can’t explain why.
”Psychics can see the color of time it’s blue.” Ronald Sukenick, Blown Away.
And here are two examples of great first lines from memoirs: ”No road offers more mystery than that first one you mount from the town you were born to, the first time you mount it of your own volition, on a trip funded by your own coffee tin of wrinkled up dollars—bills you’ve saved and scrounged for, worked the all-night switchboard for, missed the Rolling Stones for, sold fragrant pot with smashed flowers going brown inside twist-tie plastic baggies for.” Mary Car, Cherry. “Nobody comes to Minnesota to take their clothes off, at least as far as I know.” Diablo Cody, Candy Girl.
Sidebar ~ If you like first pages of novels, my sister Cynthia has a book recommendation: First Paragraphs by Donald Newlove.
When I got the editorial notes for my latest YA novel, Under the Light (a companion novel to A Certain Slant of Light) I knew I hadn’t found the right first sentence. But my editor (bless her heart) excavated the better first line out of my second page. Déjà vu. I’d heard that most people’s first drafts really start on page two or ten or chapter ten. So if you already have a first draft done, and you haven’t stumbled across the perfect opener, scan forward a bit and be open-minded. You may have already written an award-winning first sentence and simply misplaced it.
Your first line doesn’t have to be weird or fancy–it just needs to be the right one for your story. Because it’s all about great storytelling and your first words are where your story starts.