In the course of a would-be writer’s career – and I count myself in that category – we quickly learn our strengths and weaknesses. I learned that I suck at beginnings. I write and rewrite opening sentences and opening chapters more than anything else. All I have to do is come up with one opening sentence (or even one measly paragraph). How hard can it be?
It’s pretty easy to figure out how not to open a story. It’s certainly well documented. I searched Google for “how not to start a novel” and got 155,000,000 hits. Writers Digest topped the list with five Don’ts: Don’t Open with a Dream, Don’t Open with an Alarm Clock Buzzing, Don’t Be Unintentionally Funny, Don’t Open with Too Much or Too Little Dialogue.
Anne R. Allen’s blog came up next, with a post by Janice Hardy called, “Four Things to Avoid in the First Page of Your Manuscript.” Janice stresses that while it’s important to give readers a sense of things going on and engage their curiosity about what’s going to happen next, it’s critical that readers are not left asking (excuse the paraphrasing), “What the heck is going on here?”
Jane Austen nailed it with her opening line to PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, one of the most famous opening lines in literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Another memorable opening line is from Dickens’ A TALE OF TWO CITIES: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”
I tried to find some of my favorite books so I could record their first lines, but my bookshelves are double and triple-stacked so precariously I couldn’t get all the books I wanted without causing a book landslide. I just started to read a book in Nancy Atherton’s Aunt Dimity series (mystery, not romance) – this book is called AUNT DIMITY AND THE LOST PRINCE. I love the opening:
“I’ve heard it said that when the poet T.S. Eliot was writing The Wasteland [sic], he chose February as the cruelest month, and then changed it to April in revisions. If you ask me, he got it right the first time. As far as I’m concerned, February’s only redeeming feature is its brevity. If it were any longer, I’d tear it from my calendar in protest.”
This doesn’t suck me into the story in the traditional sense, but the author has instantly connected with me because I share her feelings about the shortest month.
The first book I read by Jennifer Crusie was TELL ME LIES. The opening hooked me in an instant:
“One hot August afternoon, Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband’s Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace underpants. They weren’t hers.”
The first book in Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Chicago Stars series is IT HAD TO BE YOU. The first line is a great set-up:
“Phoebe Somerville outraged everyone by bringing a French poodle and a Hungarian lover to her father’s funeral.”
I don’t think I’ve ever bought a book based on its cover, but I can’t even count the number of times I’ve bought books based on their first paragraphs. I remember standing in a Borders store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, browsing through books while my husband was at a business conference. The book that grabbed me was one of Shana Abe’s Drakon series, not the first book. After reading the whole first chapter in the store, I bought the book and finished it the same night. Before we left the next day, I ran back to Borders and bought the rest of the books in that series.
You would think reading all these fabulous first lines, first paragraphs and first chapters would make writing a satisfactory beginning of my own child’s play. Not so much.
I sympathized with Handsome Hansel’s predicament in his recent RU post on getting back into writing. I know I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to making progress. I self-edit to the point of madness, and it makes me completely insane when I can’t come up with a satisfactory first line. (At any rate, not an original one. Even now I’m channeling Kevin Kline and Meg Ryan in the movie French Kiss.)
Taken by itself, I don’t know if this line would have passed my round of edits, but overall, I have to say, it will do. “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
Can you name the book this is from?
What are some of your favorite first lines? If you’re an author, what’s your favorite of your own first lines?
Becke joined the RU team in January 2011. She moderated the Garden Book Club and the Mystery Forum at BN.com until the forums were discontinued. Prior to that, she was a writer and instructor at B&N’s Online University and for two years she wrote a garden blog for B&N. During Becke’s twenty years as a freelance garden writer, she wrote six garden books and over 1,000 published articles. She also wrote one book about ‘N Sync, co-authored with her daughter. Becke used to blog at Michelle Buonfiglio’s Romance Buy the Book blog. Writing as Becke Martin, she has three short stories in the HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS anthology published by the Ohio Valley Romance Writers Chapter. Becke has two adult children, two awesome granddaughters and two cats. She has been married 45 years and lives in Chicago’s Hyde Park.
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