Wednesday, April 8, 2009

First Lines

A conversation I had tonight inspired me to look at books to see what their very first lines are. I know there are some really well-known ones, like, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." But I could not have told you the first lines of any of my favorite books.

Well, now I'm going to and I'd like to hear some of yours, too. The reason this is interesting to me is that writers these days are told they must grab a reader from the very first line. Yet, many of the great books, including current best-sellers and new novels, don't have outstanding first lines.

So, here we go. Keep in mind, these are favorite books, not favorite first lines for me:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (JK Rowling):
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

Fablehaven (Brandon Mull):
Kendra stared out the side window of the SUV, watching foliage blur past.

DragonSpell (Donita K. Paul):
"Are ye sure ye won't ride all the way into the city?"

Inkspell (Cornelia Funke):
Rain fell that night, a fine, whispering rain.

The Secret of the Rose (Sarah L. Thomson):
They put the heads of traitors on spikes over the gate of London Bridge.

Watership Down (Richard Adams):
The primroses were over.

Beyond the Reflection's Edge (Bryan Davis):
Nathan watched his tutor peer out the window.

Demon: A Memoir (Tosca Lee):
It was raining the night he found me.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (CS Lewis):
Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.

Eragon (Christopher Paolini):
Wind howled through the night, carrying a scent that would change the world.

Some of these are grabbers and some are not, but they are all from books I love dearly. So, I don't see much of a correlation here between astounding first line and astounding book. It can be argued that a couple of my examples are classics, and therefore can't be compared to current titles because style has changed over the years. But, the newer books don't all have first lines that jump you into intense action. I don't think readers necessarily want to be slammed into the middle of a situation. A good book can ease the reader in.

What are the first lines of your favorite books? Is that what sold you? Or did you enjoy letting the story warm up first?


Dayle James Arceneaux said...

I completely agree, Kat. I did a similar post here if you're interested:

Kat Heckenbach said...

Funny--the posts are really similar.

I do agree with your post. I believe a book has to have a good opening, something of intrigue. But, I like to get to know the character at least a little, and to have the intrique filter in.

The problem I have is the demand that a book start with a kaboom! Action may grab me and make me read a book--once. But it won't make me buy it. I'll go check it out from the library because I know I'll never read it again. The books I spend money on are the ones that make me want to relive the story, and that story may take time to build. I have to settle in, fall in love with the characters, and miss them when the close the cover. That is what makes me buy a book.

Dayle James Arceneaux said...

Exactly. Starting with the kaboom is only right in certain genres. It's certainly a good way to start a suspense novel which is what I've done in my manuscript.

I would say that some sort of tension or conflict should be established early. This works even with subtle underlying tension and doesn't have to be a kaboom! type.

Good point about the books you spend money on - Contrary to what I keep hearing, I don't think readers want to be entertained - they want to be moved. I've read a lot of great novels, but the ones I remember and recommend and buy copies as gifts are not usually the ones that simply entertained me.

Kat Heckenbach said...

Oh, yes, tension--but tension can be very subtle. Even simply a feeling of discontent. NOt that an intense beginning is bad--it's certainly appropriate for a thriller!

In the discussion of this in your blog, it's mentioned that established writers "break the rules" by starting off slowly, but they can do it because they're established. Honestly, I think the "pow" beginnings are a necessity for newbies because to get published you have to show the agent/editor that you CAN write "pow" and they don't want to have to go through several chapters to get to it--they don't have time. I don't necessarily think these "established" authors are just getting lazy as some people say. They are just finally in a position where they can write a story and give it the build-up they want and not be told otherwise. Who's going to tell Stephen King, "You can't start a book that way"?

For instance--I just started "Duma Key" yesterday. The first paragraph is bor-ing. But it tells me who this guy is! King even glosses over the accident itself, adding details later in the chapter, bit by bit. I am totally sucked in now. I love that his writing is not machine-gun fast. I'm getting to know the character through his emotional state, and that makes me care about what is going to happen next. It's not just action for action's sake. When he finally starts having flashbacks of the accident it's much more powerful than it would have been if the book had started in the middle of it.

My book isn't a thriller, and it's written for teens--the main character is a 13-yr-old girl. So, the beginning isn't intense, yet my teen readers have loved it. They felt connected to the mc because she's someone they can identify with. And then when the real adventure begins, they feel like they're traveling along with a friend. At least, that is what their comments have expressed. One reader kept telling me how much Angel reminded me of her cousin and can't wait until it's published so her cousin can read it, too :).

Brandon Barr said...

It's fascinating just perusing through a bookstore at "first lines"!

I decided to do as you said, and wrote two first lines down from books sitting on my desk:

Book: The Year of the Warrior
"Maeve screamed when they raped her." (Lars Walker, writer of Christian Viking Fantasy)

Book: The Sparrow
"It was predictable, in hindsight." (Mary Doria Russell