I last wrote on opening lines two months ago, but I recently joined a FB group called First Line Monday, where we post the opening sentence or sentences of a book we’re reading or have read. (Or intend to read. No one checks.) This has proved to be more fun than I expected, and I spend a leisurely few minutes pulling books from shelves and rereading first lines. Over the few weeks I’ve been a participant, I’ve become pickier and pickier about what I’m willing to post. There’s a reason for this.
To my surprise, about four out of five books open with the weather, either by describing the season or the day or the promise of the week to come. At the end of this line is a shorter one about someone who’s cranky despite the sunny weather. The sentences are usually well crafted though not arresting in style or vocabulary, and they do promise the style of the story to come.
I’m self-conscious about opening lines right now because I’m trying to come up with a good opening for my current WIP. I have only 15,000 words left to write but I still have to go back and redo the opening. What I have doesn’t seem to work; at least it doesn’t feel right.
Generally, I think there are four broad choices for opening a story. The physical setting (weather, location, time), character description, character in action, and an incident (arrival of a letter, for example, or a looming danger). These are broad categories designed to help me focus on something other than weather, which I didn’t use but seems to pop up no matter when I’m writing a beginning.
There’s no question that getting the first line right is important and can be the hardest part of the novel to write. But a good opening becomes a classic. The American Book Review lists the hundred best opening lines, including the opening of Moby-Dick, A Tale of Two Cities, 1984, Slaughterhouse Five, The Color Purple, and Paradise. To read the whole list, go here.
Reading these opening lines helps me move past orienting the reader in physical space, and closer to locating the reader in the psychological space of the novel. I want her to feel like she has walked up to a friend or acquaintance and sees what she’s doing, and wonders why. I want the reader to be in the story, not sitting in a seat in a noisy theater waiting for the curtain to rise.
Once I have located my character in her life, I’m reading for inviting the reader in. There are plenty of ways to do this. On her website Bryn Donovan lists, not first lines, but ways to begin a novel. One suggestion is the arrival of a letter. Another is a courtroom scene, which is used in Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson. Donovan lists thirty openings, and gives examples for most of them. You can find her website here.
In the seventh Mellingham mystery, Come About for Murder, I open with a funeral. “In his last will and testament, Commodore Charles Jeremiah Winslow, one of the greatest yachting enthusiasts in the history of Mellingham Yacht Club, asked to be wrapped in a mainsail and cremated, with his ashes left to sink into Mellingham Bay. His family argued for six days and six nights over whether or not to comply with his wishes, but when they understood how much money was riding on this, they agreed to do as he wanted.”
This is a story about sailing, and the people who live to be out on the water. And they also clearly have the money to spend as much time as they want sailing along the east coast. To read more, go here.
Crafting a strong opening for a novel is perhaps the hardest writing but also the best. A good opening sets the stage for the story and draws in the reader. We all have our favorite opening lines, and I find myself returning to them when I’m working on my own.