Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Opening Lines

OK, suppose you were looking for a novel to read. Think about what you do when you go into a bookstore or a library:

What intrigues you about a book?

Why do you pick it up?

Why do you open it up?

Why do you keep reading?

Why do you buy it?

Here’s how those questions work for me: Title, Cover, Blurb, First Line, First Paragraph, First Page. Each stage is a gate, if the book passes through one gate, it goes on to the next, until I decide to buy or put it back on the shelf.

Now, I don't do this consciously, (or I didn't before I started writing) but that's how it works. Author can be important too, there are a few authors I'll pick up almost regardless of everything else. But for the unknown author, it works the way I outlined.

So lets look at each of these in turn. How much control do you, as an author, have over each of these:

Title: Author has little control. Publishers change titles all the time, depending on what they think will sell. Sometimes they may even be right.

Cover Art: Author has virtually no control. Some publishers solicit your input, but they may ignore it. Sometimes they put in exactly what you specifically request they leave out, and leave out exactly what you specifically request they put in.

Don’t be sensitive.

Back of the Book Blurb: Author has little or no control. In most cases some PR flack is going to write this, without having read your book.

First Line: Author actually writes this!

First Paragraph/First Page: These too!

So what should a first line do? Tell, or preferably show, you something compelling, intriguing, provocative and seductive, about the characters, situation, conflict, plot, tone, scope or theme of the story. It should draw you in inexorably, irrevocably, compellingly, and subtly, without, of course, using too many adverbs.

So here's an example:

The rain fell in torrents, only checked by violent gusts of wind which swept up the street and rattled along the house-tops, fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps struggling against the darkness.

Now is that a great opening line, or what? Maybe a bit purple, but in one sentence you get the entire opening scene, and the theme of the story. Rainstorm, gothic, dark, city, gaslight era. The 'rattled along the housetops' conjures pictures of slanted tile roofs edged with snarling gargoyles. The whole thing imparts a sense of desperation and impending doom. You can almost hear the organ music.

This is actually my own rewrite of the most famous opening line in English literature. It begins: "It was a dark and stormy night. ...." Look it up, and tell me how I did.

What's your favorite opening line?

I think mine is: "I told him I loved him but he killed me anyway." Now I never actually read the book that is from, in fact I don't remember what the book is, but isn't the line great? (In all fairness I only saw the line on a blog, not in the book.)

How do you decide what book to buy?


  1. I also look at covers and blurbs, but I always read the first paragraph. It's so incredibly important and, as you say, it's one of the few "first impressions" an author has any control over.

    My favorite first paragraph is from Jonathan Barnes' "The Somnambulist," which was a strange urban fantasy that I still can't decide if I like or not, but the opening paragraph made me buy the book in hardback, no less (and this is the first graph of the book, in the protagonist's voice, not a foreword):

    "Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frquently ridiculous and wilfully bizarre. Needless to say, I doubt you'll believe a word of it."

  2. I like a good opening line that grabs you by the eyeballs and won't let go. For me, they work best when they put an urgent question in my head, like I love a good opening line like 'Where's Papa going with that ax?' from Charlotte's Web. It really makes me want to know.


  3. My favorite opening line is from Fast Women, by Jennifer Crusie.

    The man behind the desk looked like the devil, and Nell Dysart figured that was par for her course since she'd been going to hell for a year and a half anyway. Meeting Gabriel Mckenna just meant she'd arrived.

    I'm a sucker for opening lines that make me laugh and care about the character.

  4. For me, book buying goes one of two ways: (1) If the book is written by one of my "auto buy" authors or if it's a book that's come recommended, I get it regardless of title, back blurb, cover. I can't tell you the amount of times I just pick up books from my favorite authors and put them in my shopping bag, not even reading the back blurb until I am ready to read the book. :-)

    (2) Now for books by new authors I am trying out, I have the follow selection criteria. I'm usually drawn in by the title first, since that tends to be all you can see from the book shelf, then I pull it out and read over the back blurb. If the premise sounds intriguing, I'll buy it. As far as covers go, they really dont factor in to my decision. I've read some good books with horrible covers before, and vice versa. The covers are more like the icing on the cake for me, but I dont think a cover along will persuade or dissuade me from purchasing a book if I am really interested in the premise.