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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Classic First Lines

I probably should have posted this before everyone put up their first lines, but live and learn........

What makes a great opening line? What makes that first sentence pop out and grab your attention?

At random I pulled some books off the nearest bookshelf in my house and started cruising through. Looking at my favorites I see three things that stand out.

1) Brevity- Most opening lines are short (there are some exceptions).

2) Tone- The opening line sets the tone for the book. If the book is full of roses and purple prose, the first line usually reflects that. If the tone is dark and despairing the first sentence is not light and fluffy. The first hit to the reader puts them squarely where they need to be.

3) Questions- The first sentence does not give us copious back story. The first sentence doesn't tell you what is going on. The first sentence is calculated over many drafts to leave you asking questions. The one exception I found to this on my search was the YA genre. YA seems to start with telling you who the MC is and wandering on from there.


The trawler plunged into the angry swells of the dark, furious sea like an awkward animal trying desperately to break out of an impenatrable swamp.
- The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum 1975

Kylarra Vatta came to attention in front of the Commandant's desk.- Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon 2003

In the middle of nowhere, along a quiet stretch of road, the diner dreamt of the hungry dead.
- Gil's All Fright Diner by A. Lee Martinez 2005

This is where the dragons went.- Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett 1989

The King of the Enchanted Forest was twenty years old and lived in a rambling, scambling, mixed-up castle somewhere near the center of his domain.- Searching for Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede 1991

The cold air blowing in through the vents still carried a faint tang of overheated metal and burned equipment.
- The Lost Fleet: Dauntless by Jack Campbell 2006

A surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by the vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate.
- The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emmuska Orczy 1905

Brevity seems the newest trend. Baroness Orczy and Mister Ludlum both dwell heavily on adjectives. I'm not sure those opening lines would survive modern agents and editors. I can imagine Miss Snark fainting in terror and the laundry list of "ands" that Baroness Orczy used in 1905.

Patricia C. Wrede, the lone YA writer showcased, does things a little differently. She sets the tone and the scene but doesn't leave you asking any question but, "Why do I care?" For younger readers this seems to work fine. They want to read and I know when I first read her book the idea of a rambling, scrambling, castle was enough for me. I didn't care why, I simply delighted in the idea.

Elizabeth Moon and Jack Campbell both have solid, no nonsense, opening lines in the fine tradition of military science fiction. They set a solid tone, they give you very little, and they force you to read the next sentence if you want to know what's going on. Jack Campbell is an excellent read for anyone studying hooks, he deliberatley ends books so you need the next one to finish the story. I haven't checked but I'm guessing his first sale wasn't a one book deal.

And then, Terry Pratchett, the Godfather of comedic fantasy... a short simple line that gives away nothing. His opening sentence tells you where you are, but not who or what is around. And he'll keep you scrambling through the rest of the book.


With this little primer in mind (and done mostly for my own edification) it is time for me to do some line edits. :o)


  1. I like your idea of looking at openings of random books. I will have to do that with some of my own. Good advice here.

  2. I figure if I know what's in the genre I'm writing, if I know how the books I like start, I can try and craft something similar. The ideas are always different but the basic grammer of the English language is the same.

    The more I write the more I read fiction books like text books. I'm looking for what the authors did. What is implied? What's shown? How is this or that situation presented?

    When I go to edit I can apply all of that. Which is probably why I'm hating this whole editing process. I know what I want, but it's impossible for me to get a perfect first draft, and every subsequent draft is only a shade better.

    Eventually I will get there!

  3. Wow, great post! I think I'll be bookmarking your blog (along with Inky's); you peeps are so full of good advice and ideas!


  4. Interesting post but only two of those (Pratchett and Moon) actually looks "short" (as in brevity) to me. :P That could be me. I see brevity as under five words. %-)

    I end up studying the opening line in whatever I read (based on whether it draws me in or not and if not, why do I continue) but I don't think I consciously analyze it that often. I might try it sometime. :D


  5. Martinex and Campbell I think are pretty short too. They can be said in one breath and it's one idea, not Orczy. I love the Scarlet Pimpernel because I think it's beyond funny, but it's really not the best literature in the world.

  6. I did this once on CC, actually, just for my own private edification. I went through the public queues and thought about which beginnings induced me to crit, and which didn't, and why. It was very interesting. For me, anyway O:)

    Hehe, Bethy, thanks for the compliment O:):P:D

  7. Yeah, openings are hard. I have an idea, and in my head the story is perfect. But the longer I stare at the screen the worse it gets...