Monday, August 10, 2015

The Myth of the Killer First Line

Photo by Nawal Al-Mashouq
How many times have you been told you need to have a killer first line? As a writer, that directive can be crippling. What does that even mean, a killer first line? Are readers expecting blood and guts on my first page? If I'm writing a Dexter novel, maybe. But the truth is that particular bit of advice has been repeated so often, I think it's lost a bit of its meaning. The result is droves of aspiring authors beginning with gimmicky first lines or unnecessary action. You don't need to create the most amazing first line written in the history of literature (although bonus points if you can and please send it to me). All you really need is a first line that intrigues the reader enough to want to keep reading.

First lines are important, that much is true. There are a number of things a first line can do:
  • establish voice
  • introduce character
  • introduce setting
  • pose a question
Those four items aren't exclusive, many first lines accomplish some combination of the four.

Establishing Voice
Voice is a buzz word you're probably tired of hearing about. It's this elusive creature that's hard to pin down. Basically there are two types of voice, author voice and character voice. Author voice is the way you, as an author, put words together to convey a story. Give ten people the same plot outline and every single one of them will write it in a different way. Author voice is unique to you. Character voice, on the other hand, is separate from author voice. In first person novels those lines get a bit muddled but bear with me. Character voice is the way your character talks, their world view and the filter through which they perceive events. Those three things should be different for each of your characters.

Introducing Character
This one is fairly self-explanatory. A first line can introduce the view point character, main character or some other character who is important to the plot. This normally means more than just giving us a name, but occasionally a name is all you get and sometimes that's enough.

Introducing Setting
Again this should be self-explanatory. First lines can help ground the reader in a particular location and setting. It's painting your background canvas before you add the main elements. This normally works well if your setting is either important to the story or plot in some integral way or if it's quite unusual.

Posing A Question
This doesn't mean literally asking a question, although it can be done that way. Instead, what I mean is using your first line to make the reader want to know more. Make them curious. If you can get your reader asking questions, they'll keep reading to find out more.

Below are examples of first lines from some of my favorite books. Let's take a closer look and deconstruct them.
"The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit." - Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Westerfeld is setting the scene, but he's also giving us character voice. We know it's summer, we know it's sunset. But look at the word choice: cat vomit. Would you describe the sky that way? I know I wouldn't. So already we know this character sees the world a bit differently than most people and she is probably not happy at the moment. Happy people don't compare sunsets to cat vomit. Read further and you'll be introduced to Tally Youngblood, a protagonist impatient and unhappy as she waits for her sixteenth birthday and the operation that will turn her pretty, like her best friend Peris.

"I would very much like to know why my mother named me 'Enola,' which, backwards, spells alone." - The Case of the Missing Marquess by Nancy Springer
Springer begins her novel by introducing character and a question. Why DID her mother name her Enola? What does being named Enola mean to this character? Does she feel alone? The use of 'I' let's us know right away that this is going to be a first person novel and if you look at the word choice you can see that this character is oddly formal: "I would very much like to know" as opposed to "I'd like to know" or "Why'd mama name me Enola?" See how those slight differences give us voice? it's a different character who'd say 'mama' versus mother. If you read the Enola Holmes books you'll discover that Enola is Sherlock Holmes little sister and thus the books are set in the Victorian era so Enola's formality makes perfect sense.

"I don't trust Clive Fagenbush." Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R. L. LaFevers
LaFevers begins with a question. WHY doesn't the character trust Clive Fagenbush? And that certainly sounds like a shifty name to me. I'm intrigued and want to know more. Read further and you'll discover that the main character, Theodosia, is plagued by Fagenbush, an assistant curator at the museum she suspects is up to something underhanded.

"In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three." - Howls Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Jones begins with setting, which, in the case of a story set in a magical land, is both important and unusual. We also get a very strong dose of authorial voice. You can tell right away that Jones has a bit of whimsy in her soul and she's going to share it with you.

"A long time ago, in a market town by a looping river, there lived an orphan girl called Plain Kate." - Plain Kate by Erin Bow.
Bow begins with both setting, character and authorial voice. You can tell right away with the words "A long time ago," that we're settling in for something of the fairy tale variety and Bow quickly delivers on that promise in the following paragraphs. There's a lyrical beauty in the cadence of her words and that hint of authorial voice is also paid off throughout the story.

"Of the first few hauntings I investigated with Lockwood & Co. I intend to say little, in part to protect the identity of the victims, in part because of the gruesome nature of the incidents, but mainly because, in a variety of ingenious ways, we succeeded in messing them all up." - The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud
Stroud hits us with character voice, character and a question all at once in his opening line. I immediately want to know more about Lockwood & Co. and how exactly they messed up the hauntings. We're also given a hint of setting because clearly we're in a world where hauntings are common or at least more commonplace than the present day and, based on the formality of the speaker, we can tell this probably isn't a tale set in modern times. Character is established with the word 'I' and the information that this person is an investigator. Voice is established with the formality of the character's words and the little bit of cheekiness in how she's basically saying, hey there were some really interesting cases and I'm not going to tell you about them.

"Today I moved to a twelve-acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd and surrounded by water." - Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
Choldenko leads with character voice and setting. The words "twelve-acre rock" and "bird turd" are fairly distinctive. The word "turd" tells us this is probably a young character and his word choices let us know he's not happy about the move. In the case of this book, setting is very important so it's fitting that Choldenko begins with that. The main character is stuck on Alcatraz because his dad works at the prison.

As you can see from the examples above, there are a lot of ways to begin your story. Notice that none of them started with a bang, a ton of action or lots of drama. Each of those first lines, however, works perfectly for its given story to entice the reader to delve deeper into the book and keep reading. Each accomplishes a particular goal and each of those goals relates back to the type of story being told and what's most important to that particular novel.

What is your first line accomplishing? Try playing around with different first lines and find the one that works best for you and your novel. Remember, it doesn't have to be action packed to be perfect.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post! I am participating in the first five pages workshop and trying to nail these important components of a good story. I'm excited about your book. I love the title! Do you have a cover image yet? Best of luck with the release!