As the other debs have mentioned this week, opening lines are special. Those first words do a lot of things–they reflect the protagonist’s voice, evoke a sense of time and/or place, and may allude to the protagonist’s problem. They’re a promise of what’s to come. Ever a work on progress, my own novel, Becoming Josephine, had four different first lines and four different openings.
Draft 1: “I could never guess how much my life would change on the other side of that voyage or, more importantly, how completely I would change.”
Though there’s a women’s fiction hook here and a bit of intrigue, the line has too many adverbs and it’s too rambly. Worse, it lacks the tone of my story. It also opened the novel with my heroine boarding the ship to France and focused on the terror-filled voyage rather than who Rose was and what made her tick. Needless to say, I went back to the drawing board.
Drafts 2-5: “The voodoo priestess threw entrails in the fire.”
This opening I liked quite a bit and had a hard time letting go of it. It hints at place with the voodoo bit, has an ominous tone, and packs a lot of punch. I like that. To punch. But once I signed with my agent and she read the opening, she liked the passage, but thought we needed to open at a slightly different place. If I hadn’t heard the same thing from a trusty critique partner, I may have disagreed. Alas, I went back to the drawing board.
Drafts 6-7: “We wandered along a darkened trail, farther from the house than Papa ever allowed.”
In this opening, again we have the tone of the novel, which I liked, but the best part about it to me is it indicated something very important about the protagonist: she broke rules when she wanted to, even if it meant there would be danger in store for her. Bingo. The novel opened at the “right” spot with this line as well…or so I thought. My agent loved the scene, blah blah, but at the 11th hour, a week before we went on submission, she contacted me and said, “we need a prologue.”
I had SO MUCH ANGST over that final note from my agent. First of all, agents and editors complain bitterly about prologues so that worried me. Second of all, it had taken me three years to nail down the perfect opening and I thought I had done that. How was I supposed to write the perfect prologue in one week? But I trusted my agent. She has a brilliant editorial eye, so I kicked around a few ideas and talked with my crit partners. Two days before I needed to submit it, I devised an opening I’m very happy with.
This final opening line is:
Final Draft: “The missive arrived in the night.”
It indicates a past era, which I liked. It has intrigue. It’s short and punchy. It’s an immediate hook that not only sets the overall tone for the novel, but it also alludes to the novel’s pace.
The moral of the story? Great openings come at the end of the revision process. Oh, and trust your agent.
What’s your opening line and what does it tell us about your novel?