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.