Tuesday, March 04, 2008

OPENING LINES

How many times have you written your opening lines? I have written every one of mine several times and still shake my head and wonder if I’ve captured the right moment. Your opening lines are your introduction to your editor. They should convince them you know what you’re talking about. These carefully chosen words should immediately launch your readers into your story.

Since opening lines are the first words the readers see. They should grab the readers attention, tantalize them, set the conflict and tone right away and make them want more. They should make a statement right out of the gate. You want your readers to clutch your book and make a dash to the check out counter.

Where should you begin? Start with something fresh and original. Introduce a theme. Jump into the scene with action. Introduce your personal writing style. Don’t be boring, passive, or wordy. Be honest with your readers in what you’re writing. Don’t lie to them.

Here are a few opening paragraphs.

1. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.

2. Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers
Angel pushed the canvas flap back just enough to look out at the mud street. She shivered in the cold afternoon air, that carried with it the stench of disenchantment.

Pair-a-Dice lay in the Mother Lode of California. It was the worst place she could have imagined, a shanty town of golden dreams built out of rotting sails from abandoned ships, a camp inhabited by outcasts and aristocrats, the displaced and dispossessed, the once-pampered and now-profane. Canvas-roofed bars and gambling houses lined mean streets ruled by unmasked depravity and greed, loneliness and grand illusions. Pair-a-dice was wild jubilation. It wed black despair with fear and the foul taste of failure.

3. The secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitch zzzzzz that hummed along my skin.

I watched their wings shining like bits of chrome in the dark and felt the longing build in my chest. The way those bees flew, not even looking for a flower, just flying for the feel of the wind, split my heart down its seam.

4. The Loop by Nicholas Evans
The scent of slaughter, some believe, can linger in a place for years. They say it lodges in the soil and is slowly sucked through coiling roots so that in time all that grows there, from the smallest lichen to the tallest tree, bears testimony.

Perhaps as he moved silently down through the forest on that late afternoon, his summer-sleek back brushing low limbs of pine and fir, the wolf sensed it. And perhaps the vestige of a rumor in his nostrils, that here a hundred years ago so many of his kind were killed, should have make him turn away.

Yet on and down he went.

5. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.

In newspaper photos of missing girls from the seventies, most looked like me: white girls with mousy brown hair. This was before kids of all races and genders started appearing on milk cartons or in the daily mail. It was still back when people believed things like that didn’t happen.

6. Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
My mother did not tell me they were coming. Afterwards she said she did not want me to appear nervous. I was surprised, for I thought she knew me well. Strangers would think I was calm. I did not cry as a baby. Only my mother would note the tightness along my jaw, the widening of my already wide eyes.

I was chopping vegetables in the kitchen when I heard voices outside our front door–a woman’s bright as polished brass and a man’s low and dark like the wood of the table I was working on. They were the kind of voices we heard rarely in our house. I could hear rich carpets in their voices, books and pearls and fur.

What do you believe the opening lines in a book should accomplish? Which opening lines from above grabbed you and immediately pulled you into the story and which ones didn’t? What did you like or dislike about these opening paragraphs? Share the first paragraph of a favorite book if you wish and tell us what you like and/or didn’t like.

12 comments:

Lori Barber said...

Checking box.

Alice Sharpe said...

Lori,
Opening words are very important. Many of your examples set a mood, some have a real hook like Lovely Bones.

I rewrite most of mine many times. In genre writing, that opening is what keeps someone reading, just as you said,. Do they like your voice, are you easy to understand and yet provoking?
I got a crash course in getting to the point when I wrote confessions. The snappier, the more direct, the more involving, the better. No time for moods and discussions of weather.

The audience patience for mood setting has diminished over the years-- perhaps not in literary fiction, but in genre. I was in Costco the other day and looked at the first page of Sebold's new book, and it was attention grabbing, too.

Danita will chime in here sooner or later -- she loves to talk about opening hooks...

thanks for a lot of interesting beginnings. What's the beginning of your book? Can you put it here?

Paty Jager said...

This is interesting! Since I began writing the opening of my next book. I started it a week or so ago with the hero, but after the retreat and changing some things, I switched it to the heroine's and I like it much better. It grabs and pulls the reader in quicker and with more emotion. It's rare that once I establish my beginning that I change it, but I do continue to tweak it, making it tighter and hoperully more hooky.

Of your samples, I liked Redeeming Love and Lovely Bones to pull me in. I like the imagery in The Secret Life of Bees, but it didn't grab me enough to care about reading more.

Great blog!

Lori Barber said...

Alice, Well, crumb, I had a wonderful reply for you but the one time I didn't save before I sent this it disappeared. Ack!

To paraphrase I said: The opening paragraph in Anne of Green Gables fills a healthy half a page (in small print)and is one sentence. This would never pass today's standard.

I love description, another thinning acceptance in today's writing world. Then I said something wonderful about smelling the roses and grasping contentment vs. rushing through life and snagging a few moments for pleasures like reading.

Anyway, here's my opening at the moment:

If one comes up with a brilliant idea it should be a given they’re exempt from humiliation. Who had put his name in the hat and why did they think he could carry out this ridiculous torture? He’d never skated on roller blades before. They performed more like ice skates; a venture he tired a few times in his youth and abandoned once his stubborn ankles claimed a permanent inward tilt. Thirty-five days on them represented lunacy. Especially for a man in his thirties and the only pastor in the community. What are you telling me Lord, that I’m not moving fast enough?

Lori Barber said...

Paty, I knew a few of us were starting or would be starting new books soon so I thought this reminder about opening sentences would be timely.

Interesting that both you and Alice liked the opening of Lovely Bones. I believe I recently read it's going to be made into a movie.

Yes, selecting the right character to start your book is an important decision. Writing it from both the heroine and hero's perspectives and then selecting the better fit is a fun way to get to know your characters more intimately. A good lesson for us all to practice.

Danita Cahill said...

Lori,
Alice was right, I love to study hooks and the first opening lines and paragraphs of stories. It makes or breaks the work, as far as I'm concerned.

Here's the hook from a Jodi Picoult book I just finished, Vanishing Acts:

I was six years old the first time I disappeared.

And this, from the spring 2004, Glimmer Train Stories, a short literary story, The Small Side of Large by Clark E. Knowles. (As an aside, I believe I read somewhere that Knowles worked on this story for three years)

The furnace quits at three in the morning. Willard Dix's feet -- huge paddles of flesh -- stick out from under the covers, growing colder and colder. It surprises him, really -- the temperature, his numb toes, the stillness of the room. For a moment, he can't place himself in the world. His wife is dead, of course. She's been dead ten years.

Paty Jager said...

Great beginning, Lori! Bet I know which book this is from... ;)

I like that line from Picoult, Danita. It grabs your attention!

Alice Sharpe said...

Lori, I love your beginning, too. I've actually heard it before and remember it. Paints a very vivid picture for those of us over thirty who put on skates for the first time in, ahem, awhile.

An Danita, those great paddles of freezing foot flesh are great!

Lori Barber said...

Paty & Alice, thank you for your kind words about my beginning.

We just returned from celebrating my mother's 75th birthday. She loved the quilt. Clung to it like a new best friend.

wavybrains said...

Great Entry Lori! I like all the books you picked, and the examples everyone else put out there too.

I want to see pictures of the quilt.
:) :)

Genene said...

Hi, Lori!

I rewrite my opening hooks LOTS of times!

All of your examples were great hooks, though some of them gave me the chills and I knew I wouldn't want to read the entire book because I don't like to be chilled! No frozen feet for me!

Elisabeth Naughton said...

Lori, I rework my openings several times. Usually tweaking to make the first few lines more enticing.

One opening that's always stood out to me is Nora Roberts' Carolina Moon:

She woke in the body of a dead friend.

Sucked me in, just like that.