More on opening lines

So we know that your opening line, or at least your opening paragraph, will define the tone and style of your story. We know that the opening line needs to be snappy and powerful to win over casual browsers at a book store. But what does that all actually mean?

Let’s look at how to craft an opening line and see both what works and what doesn’t. To begin, we’ll look at the opening line from my first novel, Between Heaven and Hell.

It was a bright and sunny day in Washington DC, and Daniel Cho found himself at the scene of an accident.

What’s wrong with this? So many things. (In my defense, it was 13 years ago, I was young and I needed the money.) First off, it’s a weather report.

Do not start the story with weather. It’s a rookie mistake, and it makes you look like a rube. Any mention at all of the weather in the opening line pegs you as just one notch beyond “It was a dark and stormy night.” or “The night was humid.” Setting is important, sure, and there are lots of ways to establish that in a paragraph or two, but it’s pretty low priority for your opening line. Opening lines need to do four things:

  1. Establish character.
  2. Establish conflict, or if you prefer, dramatic tension (no, you don’t have to start with a fight scene just because people say conflict).
  3. Set the narrative tone or voice for the story.
  4. Broadly establish the setting or genre of the story.

Technically, the line above meets all four of those criteria, but it does so in a very clumsy way, throwing the setting in your face and pushing the conflict back to almost an afterthought. What kind of accident? Did somebody spill peanuts in aisle nine, or did a jetliner crash into the Capitol dome (remember folks, Tom Clancy did it long before al Qaida took a crack at it)? The stuff that should be direct is vague and the stuff that should be vague is direct. Definite room for improvement.

Here’s the first line from a rewrite I attempted in 2007.

Daniel had just stepped out of the 7-Eleven when he heard the crash, his pistachio ice cream already melting in the heat.

Better, but not perfect. We’ve got an extra detail, the ice cream melting in the heat, that tells us something about where Daniel is without mentioning the weather directly. But we still have an indirect tense (“had just” are unnecessary words and warning signs about your writing) that removes Daniel and his perceptions from the action. The tone is thus still tentative. We also don’t know much about the crash, although that is more specific than “accident.” We’re still not sure how much we should care.

Daniel Cho stepped out of the 7-Eleven and heard the unmistakable collision of steel on steel.

This is simple, direct and yet manages to tell us several useful things. We know our character’s name, where he is (broadly, we know he’s in a modern urban setting where one might find a 7-Eleven; this isn’t medieval fantasy or outer space) and that to him, the sound of steel colliding with steel is unmistakable, giving us a hint at his background or profession (as it turns out, and as we’ll see in the next few paragraphs, Daniel is a paramedic in Washington DC). This line is the shortest of the three, and yet it’s the most powerful. It’s powerful in large part because it’s simple, because it doesn’t beat around the bush and gets right to the action. We know there’s violence afoot, and we know that Daniel is going to react to it. We’re hooked and ready to see what happens next.

Opening lines and tone

Consider two opening lines, both conveying the same idea.

As plans go, it was right up there with the Maginot Line.

and

The plan sucked.

Which one is better?

The first line is funnier and more stylish. It also has a way of grabbing attention. On the other hand, it relies on a certain familiarity with European history. If you don’t know what the Maginot Line was, and why it was so spectacularly ineffective, the joke falls flat.

The second version, in a tone I like to refer to as “The Hemingway,” is direct, downbeat and to the point. It also has a stark simplicity and frankness that capture the futility of the plan.

The answer as to which is better depends on the tone for your entire story. Is it biting and sarcastic (option 1) or dark and hard-boiled (option 2)? Or something else entirely, meaning both of these lines would be ill-suited to the task?

I’ve been thinking a lot about opening lines recently, since that’s again something I can tinker with for Sins of the Mothers before actually starting NaNoWriMo in November. In many ways, your opening line defines the tone of the novel for your reader and sets up expectations for the narrative. In a lot of ways, both of the options above wouldn’t actually work for me, as I’ve settled on writing this book in third person and both of those sound like first person narrative lines to me.

My default style for third person viewpoint is a tone I think of as “The Asimov,” a completely invisible narrator that remains neutral and just tells the story without editorializing or embellishment. I tend to avoid more visible narrators because unless they’re done really, really well–talking Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash here, where the entertainment of the narration compensated for the holes in the plot–I find them to be more distracting than useful. Remember that story is king, and punchy narration or even Aaron Sorkin-class dialogue won’t turn a bad story into a good one. Narration can distract from minor plot issues, but if the story doesn’t work then bantering with the reader isn’t going to help. Personally, I’d rather fix any structure problems and then get out of the way, letting the story tell itself.

Which, of course, brings me back to the opening line. How important is it, really? There are tales floating around on the interwebs telling authors that your first line will make or break the novel, that all agents or editors combing through the slush pile are going to care about is the opening line, or the first paragraph at most. If you don’t hook them immediately, you’re doomed.

I’m not so sure I believe this. I think opening lines are important, but they’re only vital for true slush, unrequested submission of your whole manuscript. With no supporting material, the first line better be good or no one is going to read any farther.

But that’s not the way publishing works anymore. In most cases, the agent or editor isn’t even going to see the first page of your manuscript until after you’ve sent them a well-crafted query letter and they’ve been intrigued enough to ask for sample chapters (or the completed manuscript). So in this case, they already know they’re interested based on the query, and aren’t going to change their mind just because the first line didn’t reach out and grab them by the throat. If 21st century writers put as much effort into their query letter as they do into their first paragraph, they’d probably get much better results.

So that’s publishing. What about readers? Don’t you have to grab the reader once the book is on the shelf?

Again, I’m not so sure. Personally, and I know I’m atypical here, I don’t buy books from shelves anymore. I buy ebooks exclusively, mostly from eReader.com, though I’ve shopped ShortCovers and the Amazon Kindle store, since I can read both of those on my iPhone as well. In all cases, the first line is a minor factor in the buying decision process if it’s even available for consideration at all. In a lot of cases, I don’t get to see the first line of the book until after I purchase it, and by that point I’m invested and determined to read as far into the book as I can so that I get my money’s worth. (I actually am as cheap as they guy in the McDonald’s commerical with the jackhammer.) So again, in ebooks you’re much better off polishing your promotional material, the summary posted on the web site with your book, than in making sure the first line grabs the reader.

But while ebooks are the next hot thing–finally, only a dozen years after I got into them–I know a lot of people still don’t read electronically. So for the folks that still do haunt the brick and mortar bookstores, surely opening lines are still vital for them, right?

Maybe. At least in that venue, you know that the potential buyer can access the opening line of your book. There’s a chance they’ll see it. But a lot of people don’t. A lot of readers literally judge a book by its cover: its back cover. The blurb on the back cover of a paperback, or the jacket flap of a hardcover, tells most readers everything they need to know about whether or not to make a purchase. If that sells them, they’ve already made their decision by the time they see the first line.

So does that mean first lines aren’t important at all? Of course not. Like I said, it sets the tone and narrative expectation for the reader. And no matter what, you want to start strong. But the opening line isn’t the most important part of your narrative–that would be the ending–and it isn’t vital to getting your book noticed. Make it good enough, match the tone to the rest of the story, and focus on getting the story right. The rest will take care of itself.