Fear in Writing: The Opening Line

Today in Literary History

Today in Literary History...December 14, 1907: Rudyard Kipling receives the Nobel prize for literature, the first English-language writer to do so.ud

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Opening Line

Step, step. Grab. Pour. Splash.
Dark brown invades perfect white.  Takes over until--nothing is replaced by everything.
Mmmm.  Can't smell this morning, but can taste it before the porcelain touches my mouth.  Already salivating.  A ring of bubbles helps the brew meet the cup. 
Lift. Tip.  Silent sip--

Good morning, World.

Opening Sentences
I am struggling with my opening line.  It is a tough one because I want to convey so much meaning.  It has to be strong, somewhat surprising, emotional but given with a certain nonchalance.

I have read some pretty bad first sentences in my day.  I've read some great ones.  It has been said that Robert McCammon is the master of the opening line:
"It was hell's season, and the air smelled of burning children." from Gone South
Then there is this one from the inemitable Virginia Woolf:
"He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters." from Orlando
How important is the opening sentence in a book to you?  Will you keep reading if it disappoints?  Will you rush forward in excitement if it intrigues or delights?  Will you remember it if it is particularly witty or well-turned?

Tomorrow, 'Moonlight Falls' author Vincent Zandri comes to Southern City Mysteries.  Check out my first interview on this blog, and see why this book should be on your TBR list.

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  1. First sentences are important; but I would say that the first page is where I usually get sucked in – or not.

  2. It's important to write a good one! But that said, I don't judge a book by the first line.

  3. Crystal- True. I have dropped a book after a bad first page, but not after a bad first line. I usually make it through the firs paragraph or two.

    Alex- Can't wait to read your first line! Congrats on getting your MS to the editor!

  4. First lines tend to kick my butt as well. How does one make it exciting and enticing without resorting to cliche or schmaltzy?

  5. The first sentence can definitely pull you right in, but I don't think it necessarily has to. Most readers will keep going through the first paragraph. I, for one, don't really remember the first lines because I spend so much time looking at the big picture, but even I will admit that a killer first line gets me reading faster.

  6. I try to write a good first line, but honestly I read so fast that I never really differentiate between sentences. I usually judge the first chapter or two before moving on or quitting.

  7. I'm a first page type of girl...but a very impatient reader. I'll give a book about 10 pages now and it needs to grab me in that length of time.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  8. Have you read "Hooked" by Les Edgerton? It's a book devoted purely to the opening. I would recommend it.
    However, good or bad openings don't effect me one way or the other

  9. Great heavens, I posted about this exact subject yesterday! First sentences are important, but so are first paragraphs. And the paragraph after that, and the paragraph after that.

  10. I'm with Crystal--1 page is what I give for them to hook me. I love a great first sentence though. Walter Jon Williams has one in "Angel Station" that really grabbed me:
    When their father killed himself he recorded the event, just as he recorded everything else of importance in his sad, ill-organized life.

    I'm still not satisfied with any of mine.

  11. To be honest, these two opening lines you gave as example seem horrible to me. The first one would make me throw away the book in the garbage :) And the other one I don't like neither, but it obviously didn't stop me from reading the whole book, since I remember reading ORLANDO back in high school :)
    PS I think closing lines are much more important than the closing ones. Sometimes a good closing line can cover up all the bad things in the book making you remember just the last sentence and forget about the weak parts in the novel.

  12. I think the pressures of a good opening line are a bit overrated. I'm a sucker for the first paragraph. If the first line doesn't convey enough, the first paragraph better. After that, I'm done or I'm in.

  13. I got on a kick one time and tore my entire house apart reading the first lines in every book I could find. Ahh, psychotic author moments-aren't they grand.

    The first line is normally the last thing I write. In it, I try to set the theme for the whole book. For example, in my manuscript one of the major plot points is Felicity's best friend goes missing so in the first scene I have her tearing her room apart searching desperately for something.

    As for when I'm reading, I am not too concerned with first lines. I give the author 5 pages to hook me. My "to-be-read" pile is too large. :-)

  14. First lines are important and I’m impressed when they’re powerful, but I won’t quit reading if they’re not. I’ll give books a few pages to a chapter to wow my socks off.

  15. Good post. Honestly, sometimes I don't even fully register the first line. But if by the end of the first paragraph I don't get where I am, I'll start over.

    I give the book a few pages if I don't like the style, and anywhere from 50-100 pages to get into the story before throwing in the towel.

  16. I've got an award for you at my blog.


    Publish or Perish

  17. So many of you said so many great things- but here are a few responses-

    Elspeth- Great minds, and all, I promise I'm not plagiarizing!

    Aj- I think you're a little crazy, but that's good in a writer.

    Dez- Valid opinion, and great point about closing lines.

    Al- Thank you!

  18. I just added Gone South to my Goodreads list ion the strength of that amazing first sentence. I'd add the Woolf novel too - if I knew what it was. That's the power of a one-liner. Crazy how it bears the weight of all that will follow.

    Be well this week, Michele!


    from the desk of a writer (I moved my blog! I'm at Wordpress now.)

  19. Oh - ha! Orlando. I just noticed and am now adding it! :)

    I think I registered it like the city for some reason. Ha!