Favorite First Lines

Favorite First Lines

 “I was trying to remember if I’d ever been blindfolded before.

I didn’t think I had been, but the cloth on my eyes felt vaguely familiar, almost nostalgic. I couldn’t imagine why. The only images I could connect with blindfolds were kidnappings.”                      J. Michael Orenduff, The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein

“Nearly thirteen thousand summers have passed since that splendid morning when the first human footprints appeared between these towering canyon walls. But in all the years since that singular event, not one good thing has happened here. This being the case, hardly anyone visits this remote and dreadful place—though the rare exception is worthy of mention.  Consider Jacob Gourd Rattle.”                     James D. Doss, The Witch’s Tongue

An effective opening says something that makes the reader sit up and pay attention. It’s not a warm-up, but the beginning of something. Something that sets the tone of the book and makes the reader curious or empathic or otherwise immediately engaged. Usually—though not always—it leads into the event that triggers the main plot.

I like the two I quoted above because both give the reader a strong sense of the voice and mood of the book. In the Orenduff example, the narrator reveals his personality, his sense of humor, and his ability to stay cool in bizarre situations. And of course, it raises the question: Why is he blindfolded? The reader is caught up right away, and I think it would hook newcomers to the series who are not yet acquainted with pot thief Hubie Schuze. They don’t need to know his name yet, or what he looks like, or that he’s in Albuquerque. That can come later, once they are pulled into the events.

The example from Doss sets a different tone. His omniscient narrator sees a big-picture view, hinting at something supernatural or evil, and yet doing so with a touch of humor. You can almost hear some Southwestern old-timer spinning a spooky tall tale. The lines create a sense of mystery about the canyon itself and the events—none of them good—that have happened there. And of course, the reader has to wonder who is Jacob Gourd Rattle is and what he’s doing in this cursed or haunted place.

Peter Heller’s novel, The Painter, begins with an equally powerful but entirely different type of hook.

“I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea. As a child, you imagine your life sometimes, how it will be. I never thought I would be a painter. That I might make a world and walk into it and forget myself. That art would be something I would not have any way of not doing.”

This is backstory and introspection, a risky way to start a book, and one that seldom works. So why is it effective here? For me, it’s the juxtaposition of the startling first line with the narrator’s other unexpected life turns. Art and fatherhood suggest peace, nurturing, and creativity; shooting someone clashes with that image. Then, his compulsion to paint and his ability to vanish into his work suggest he is a passionate man who has things he’d like to forget. The interiority of this passage lets the reader know that this book will be as much about the protagonist’s inner arc as about the dark suspense that drives the plot.

I began Soul Loss, the fourth Mae Martin mystery, this way:

“The full moon was the only glitch in the plan. Too much visibility against the desert and the lake. He’d have to wait ’til he was sure the other campers were sleeping.

“Jamie stared down the slope from his tent to the shore. Depression grabbed him like a weighted net. He’d felt lighter after making the decision, but now the delay dragged him back down.”

Newcomers to the series may wonder who he is and why he’s on the verge of some desperate act. Readers who have been following the series know him and his history, and I meant to alarm them, to make them want to reach into the story and stop him.

Though I’m satisfied with my own first lines, I’m inspired to aim for even stronger ones in the future.  I have an opening line I love in book seven (as yet untitled and unfinished). I’ll have to move it from the beginning of chapter three to the beginning of the book, rearranging the chapters, but it might be worth the work.

What are your favorite openings and why?

Openings, Closings, Cliff Hangers, Hooks, and Dribbles

In early drafts, I fall into a habit of beginning and ending chapters in similar ways. Because of this, one of the stages I’ve added to my revision routine is the focused examination of chapter-opening and chapter-closing paragraphs to make sure they are not only effective but varied.

Openings

A chapter has to start with a sense of purpose and direction, or a reader will be confused or lose interest, and it’s not just the writer’s goal for the scene that matters—it’s the character’s. Furthermore, it has to be a goal the reader will care about, a goal that arouses empathy, curiosity, suspense, or dread. Although some chapters can begin effectively with an overt statement of a character’s goal, it would be tedious if they all did. How many other ways can I indicate that goal?

  • It can be forced on the protagonist by another’s character’s goal, either in conflict or through teamwork. (But not too often, or the lead character can seem passive and reactive.)
  • Some goals are made so obvious by the action that opens the chapter that they need not be stated directly.
  • Occasionally, a chapter can open with a sequel or reaction scene relating to the previous chapter, a paragraph or two of the character’s inner work which leads to a decision that becomes the goal.
  • Minor goals can set a character in motion only to be swept aside by a more urgent goal.
  • There’s immediate energy in a goal stated in conversation or implied by the subtext of the dialogue.

Though I won’t keep listing them, I’m sure you can think of other variations on this essential feature of the chapter (and scene) openings.

Closings

If a chapter ends with a nice, tight feeling of closure, the reader can easily put down the book. I doubt any of us has ever read a chapter ending like that in a mystery. At least, I hope not. The last lines have to keep the momentum going. I’m not a fan of the “if only she had known what was coming next” sort of hook. It’s possible to use to it sparingly in the first person, or in a truly omniscient point of view where there is a narrator’s voice, but not in close third person, which is the only point of view I use. Sometimes I want to create that portentous feeling, though.

To do so, I can end with a character having a sense of something bad about to happen, and if I do it once or twice in the book—probably once—that’s enough. Another way to get the hint of forthcoming doom or disaster is a chapter with a happy ending to that’s too good to last, or a character turning down a task that he’ll eventually have to face. There’s also the classic cliff-hanger that leaves a character on the precipice of a life-changing decision or a dangerous confrontation, but it can’t be overused without losing its power. Sometimes the hook can be as simple as going through a door, if the reader wants to know what will happen on the other side.

I took a class in which we were cautioned not to let our scenes dribble—not to keep going after they have ended—and it’s good advice, but once in a while I’ve seen some excellent writers do this at the end of a chapter. There is a page-turning plot event at the end, but it’s followed by a few humorous lines of dialogue that add depth to the characters and their relationships without smothering the impact of the “real” ending. It’s a dribble, but it’s a skilled dribble, used judiciously like a dribble of hot sauce that’s only good in small quantities.

For this post, I studied how one of my favorite writers, Tony Hillerman, began and ended chapters, examining his Sacred Clowns. The chapter openings vary from setting a scene and introducing characters along with their goals to dialogue lines that jump into the next stage of the plot, and from inner reflections to moments that progress the romantic subplots. The goals are clear but sometimes implied, not always stated in narration or dialogue. His endings range from surprises to warnings to humorous dialogue following up a more serious event (the well-crafted dribble). One chapter ends with a character’s recognition of an important pattern in the mystery plot, another with an informant’s hint that he can help, and another with a comic setback in a romantic subplot. There are endings where the characters are stumped or struggling, but he never uses an outright cliffhanger in this book. Once in a while, he even ends with character getting what he wants—for the moment.

There’s some wonderful symmetry in Hillerman’s chapter structures. One begins with Joe Leaphorn dealing with paperwork and ends with Jim Chee dealing with paperwork, paperwork to be exchanged with each other. It’s humorous and insightful, tells much about their working relationship, and it moves the plot. Another chapter ends with someone warning Jim Chee that a certain investigation is none of his business, while the following one begins with a different character giving Chee the same caution. The book is a page-turner, without the author doing anything clichéd to make the reader turn the page.

One of my go-to writing books is Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure, and I expect many of my fellow writers are familiar with it. Bickham’s basic scene structure advice is: goal, conflict, disaster. He gives creative ways to work with that structure, including starting in the middle of the conflict and then revealing the goal later, ending short of a full disaster, and more.

Can you share any other “tricks of the trade” for keeping readers up at night?