This week’s topic is first lines—our own, or anyone else’s. OK, so technically the example above is of the first two lines, but if you get your hands on the book and read it, you’ll forgive me.
Here’s another beginning I love:
“A doctor took pictures of my lungs. They were full of snow flurries.” -Nic Pizzolatto, Galveston
These two books have very little in common, other than they are both crime novels. They are both, however, among my favorites. There’s something playful in the tone of both of them that you can get from, ta da, their first lines.
Opening lines have a lot of work to do. They establish point of view and voice. They ask questions and make promises, not the least of which is the promise of authorial control. Yes, they hook the reader, but a hook alone has no value. Opening lines have to hook with a promise that will be fulfilled. Often a first line will harken somehow to the ending of the novel. Tall order. But I think the best thing they can do is set the tone of the novel as a whole.
Take a look back at Louise Penny’s line. The first line that launched an award-winning (so far) nine-book series. [I should just take a commercial break her to say that, if you don’t like Louise Penny’s books, it doesn’t meant you won’t like my book. But it might mean that I won’t like YOU.] Anyhoo… “Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday. It was pretty much a surprise all around” is a great opening because you know what kind of book it is from the outset—or, at least you know what kind of book it isn’t. With a line like “Miss Jane met her maker,” you’re pretty unlikely to be sneaked into a serial killer story anytime soon. And you see that the tone is going to be fun, despite that death right there in the first line. A certain kind of reader would be put off by this opening, but that’s OK. Because you’re not out to trick anyone into reading your work. You want to lay out the breadcrumbs for the right reader, the one who will enjoy your story, not feel deceived or let down by its failed promises.
On the other hand, a line like “A doctor took pictures of my lungs. They were full of snow flurries” gives you the barest glimmer of a character with nothing to lose. When he reveals in short order that he is a thug for hire, you know things are about to get even thuggier.
The first line of THE BLACK HOUR is “My lungs clawed for air as though I were drowning.” Now I don’t want to telegraph anything more than I need to, but there’s some dark magic at work in that line that I hope pays off by the end. If I can allow myself the two lines that I did for Louis and Nic above, the opening lines of TBH are “My lungs clawed for air as though I were drowning. I stopped, hunched over my grandmotherly cane, gasping.” Now what I hope those lines do together is start to give you a glimpse of Amelia Emmet’s situation. You can’t see her yet, but maybe you can start to hear her. “Grandmotherly,” to me, helps the reader understand that the cane also mentioned there is out of place, and resented. That’s the work I hope it does, at least.
Do you have a favorite first line?
Image from enchantedinkpot.blogspot.com.