Monday, February 25, 2008

More Great First Lines

Continuing the previous blog...

I happen to teach workshops in writing great and grabber opening paragraphs and scenes. So I much enjoyed CIndy's posting because--as we talk about the craft of writing--it underscores how essential the opening words are.

They are for two reasons: editors and readers. Understand if you don't snag the editor (or agent), you'll never snag the reader.

The editor (or agent) has seen it all before or read it all before. So you have to be pithier than pithy, cleverer than clever to snag his attention. The reader is distracted, multi-tasking, watching his kids' soccer practice or working on her taxes or catching a ten-minute read during lunch hour in the corporate cafe. So if you don't have the ability to intrigue at opening, you're never going to get your knock-the-socks off Chapter 5 read.

From my workshop, here are some of the better opening lines I've seen (some are from short stories, some are from novels). Tell me which ones work for you, WHY (why is very important if you're a writer) and which ones don't (and WHY):

(1) The night Jimmy-Ray Carter got nailed by the alien, he ran five miles without stopping, all the way to Bill Sharkey's house, and busted in on our card game, screaming and yelling and carrying on like a sackful of crazed weasels. Good sex will do that to a person.

We all just sat and watched while Bill poured three fingers of Wild Turkey and tried to get the glass up to Jimmy-Ray’s mouth without losing any, which was interesting enough that we all start laying bets as to whether Jimmy-Ray’s gonna get outside of the Turkey or not and if he does, is he gonna puke it right up again on account of being over-excited and all. Shows you what kind of cards we were holding—talk about a cold deck. [Pat Cadigan, Love Toys of the Gods]

(2) Meg didn’t understand at first.

The man was smiling, and his pleasant expression and tone of voice didn’t match his words. “We’ve taken your daughter hostage.”

She was in the parking garage beneath her condo, hauling a box of files from the back of her car, when he approached her. She wasn’t even a hundred feet away from Ramon, the building’s security guard.

The smiling man must’ve seen the confusion in her eyes, because he said it again. In a Kazbekistani dialect. “We have your daughter, and if you don’t follow out orders, we’ll kill her.” [Suzanne Brockamann, The Defiant Hero]

(3) Pulling one hand from the warmth of a pocket, Jay Landsman squats down to grab the dead man’s chin, pushing the head to one side until the wound becomes visible as a small, ovate hole, oozing red and white.

“Here’s your problem,” he said. “He’s got a slow leak.”

“A leak?” says Pellegrini, picking up on it.

“A slow one.”

“You can fix those.”

“Sure you can,” Landsman agrees. “They got these home repair kits now…”

“Like with tires.”

“Just like with tires,” Landsman says. “Comes with a patch and everything else you need. Now a bigger wound, like from a thirty-eight, you’re gonna have to get a new head. This one you could fix.”

Landsman looks up, his face the very picture of earnest concern.

Sweet Jesus, thinks Tom Pellegrini, nothing like working murders with a mental case. One in the morning, heart of the ghetto, half a dozen uniforms watching their breath freeze over another dead man—what better time and place for some vintage Landsman, delivered in perfect deadpan until even the shift command is laughing hard in the blue strobe of the emergency lights… [David Simon, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets]

(4) The surgery hurt far more than he’d expected.

But then, how could he have prepared for an experience so new? He’d known nothing of pain.

Until the first cut.

A line of fire ripped across his back and he screamed. It was the first audible sound he’d ever made.

Feathers were falling, surrounding him with a curtain of drifting white. It took him a moment to realize that they were his own feathers. They had lost their familiar luminescence and looked alien.

He was becoming alien himself. The idea horrified him, until the surgeon sealed the wound. Heat seared across his back, following the line of the incision. Wetness spilled on his cheeks and he tasted the salt of his tears.

Another first.

His bellow made the floor vibrate. The smell of burned flesh was new as well, and sickening.

He reminded himself that he had volunteered.

[Claire Delacroix, Fallen] [Linnea's note: this book isn't out yet--I rec'd an ARC. It's awesome!]

(5) It began the day the girl was dragged into the machinery.

Her shrieks took a moment to pierce through the clattering din of gears, the clanging song of shuttles. Mina lifted her head slowly, her fatigued mind taking time to register the new sound, to wonder what it might be. Then with a terrified oath, she grabbed the clutch to stop her looms, saw at least one shuttle snarl the cotton threads into a hopeless spider’s weaving before she had even turned away.

The victim was on her knees, her arm between two massive drums turned by heavy belts. Blood from the crushed limb slicked the drums as they rumbled on, grinding her bones and seeking to drag more of her into their hungry maw. She was a new girl, perhaps not yet cautious enough around the machines, perhaps just unlucky enough to have a sleeve flutter where it shouldn’t.

The overseer, Jacob, grabbed ineffectually at the drums and the belts driving them, only to have the skin stripped instantly from his palms. The belts hooked onto the huge drive shaft, which was turned by the gigantic water wheel that powered the mill.

And there was no way to stop the wheel.
[Elaine Corvidae, Winter's Orphans]

And some of mine that I'm particularly proud of:

(a) Telling her he loved her was on his list of things to do.

Dying before he had a chance to do so, wasn’t.

The metal decking of Starbase Delta Five skewed suddenly under his boots.

The shock wave of the first explosion blasted by him. He stumbled, slammed against the bulkhead. Debris cascaded down through the ruptured conduit panels. He swung his good arm up to shield his face and slid awkwardly to the floor.

“Macawley!” Her anguished voice called to him through the communications badge pinned to his shirt.

He almost said it, right then and then. I love you. I’ve always loved you. I’m just too much of a coward to tell you.

(b) This he knew with unwavering certainty: he would kill her before the next full moons rose.

A thick canopy of interweaving branches tattooed the sky overhead. Light from the setting sun barely trickled through. Within the hour, Alith, the first moon would rise. An hour after that, Takin would ascend. Neither full yet; not for another three days. Torrin didn’t need to glance upward for confirmation. He knew. Just as he knew the rain before it fell and the wind before it whined through the timbers. He was one of the damned; a full-blood Chalith, mage-line. Moon-kin.

(c) Only fools boast they have no fears. I thought of that as I pulled the blade of my dagger from the Takan guard’s throat, my hand shaking, my heart pounding in my ears, my skin cold from more than just the chill in the air. Light from the setting sun filtered through the tall trees around me. It flickered briefly on the dark gold blood that bubbled from the wound, staining the Taka’s coarse fur. I felt a sliminess between my fingers and saw that same ochre stain on my skin.

“Shit!” I jerked my hand back. My dagger tumbled to the rock-strewn ground. A stupid reaction for someone with my training. It wasn’t as if I’d never killed another sentient being before, but it had been more than five years. And then, at least, it had carried the respectable label of military action.

This time it was pure survival.

Do we see vividness and not brevity? Do we see word choices that evoke the emotions, that drag the reader in to the scene, willingly or not? But we also have action, threat, change.

It was either Swain (see my previous blog) or his protege, Jack Bickham, who advises that "good fiction starts with threat or change, and someone's response to that threat or change."

Words for writers to live by. Especially in the opening paragraphs.



  1. Hmm, well, I didn't like any of them. I think it's the ol' 'not my cup of tea' thing, because I love this one-

    ^Another dark, humid, stinking alley. Another nil-tech planet. What a surprise.^ - DOWN HOME ZOMBIE BLUES by you-know-who

    A novel doesn't live or die for me by the first line, however. But, the author better nail it in the first five pages or I am so outta there.

  2. I'm with Kimber An on this one, regarding that I don't place much emphasis on the first line.

    I'm not a first line person, I suppose. Most of the time I research a book's premise before I even crack it open. Then once I start reading, the questions for me are did the author start the story in the right place, and is the writing competent enough to draw me in. Like Kimber an, I give it a few pages at least.

    I actually find it distracting if an opening line is too clever or gimmicky or is going for shock value. It impedes the momentum for me. Whether it's the first line or the last, I want writing so good that it's almost invisible in its execution.

    The first lines presented here were certainly good, but I wasn't blown away. Simon's will probably linger in my memory the longest, but only because I haven't read any books that start off with someone handling a corpse's chin.

  3. David Simon's is non-fiction. FYI. It's one of the most gripping books I've ever read. No HEA, BTW. ~Linnea

  4. I have to say, the first lines of Fallen grabbed me. I will def put that on my tbr list. And coincidentally I'm working on one with the same title

  5. Anonymous2:05 PM EST

    I found that the first paragraph grabbed me more so than the first line. Even so, there were several of those lead-ins that made me really want to read the books. The WHY though was universal: They set the tone of the story.