First Lines and Setting a Novel’s Tone

first+line“Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday. It was pretty much a surprise all around.” -Louise Penny, Still Life

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?


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Author: Lori Rader-Day

Lori Rader-Day is the author of the mystery THE BLACK HOUR (Seventh Street Books, July 2014). She grew up in central Indiana, but now lives in Chicago with her husband and very spoiled dog.

12 Replies to “First Lines and Setting a Novel’s Tone”

  1. “At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6th, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department at East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.” John Hersey, Hiroshima

    Not a mystery, but the first line of a book I recently read that really impressed me. There are such famous first lines (thinking of course of Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, etc.), but I’m frequently impressed with the lesser known titles.

    And I’m looking forward to The Dark Hour – it is surprising how time slows as we get closer to the release date.

    1. Oh, I love that book, Sam, and that first line. Pride and Prejudice is another favorite first line (and book), but I wanted to use mysteries in my examples, of course.

      Time is NOT slowing down over here, I can promise you that!

  2. I love a well crafted first line (hence the reason I started that group on Facebook). Of course one of my favorite openings of all time is from a Laura Levine mystery and an entire passage about those who do lunch and those who have lunch. It’s so funny. Another great line comes from a middle grade novel by Stuart Gibbs. “Clinging to the prison wall, Greg Rich realized how much he hated time travel.” That first line was enough to get me to forgive the use of my least favorite story tell devise – setting up a great scene followed by “Two days ago” or however long ago the story really starts.

  3. Wow, what a topic.

    The first thing that came to mind was Gravity’s Rainbow: “A screaming comes across the sky.” (Which Pynchon later echoed, more playfully, as a thrown snowball in the beginning of Mason & Dixon.)

    Then there’s the beginning of Dhalgren: “to wound the autumnal city” (which turns out to be the second half of the sentence fragment that ends the book — “Waiting here, away from the terrifying weaponry, out of the halls of vapor and light, beyond holland and into the hills, I have come to” — an idea Samuel R. Delany got from Finnegan’s Wake).

    I like your graphic, by the way. That’s the first sentence of my next story. I read a blog post somewhere (I wish I’d bookmarked it) with a list of ways you should absolutely definitely never ever begin a novel. Ever.

    I had the idea of using them all. The only ones I remember for sure were: a prologue, a character cursing, a character waking up, and “It was a dark and stormy night.”

    1. You like a challenge, don’t you, Anthony? I did that once. My high school teacher claimed that no story could be told if the protagonist was dead. So I wrote that story to prove her wrong. It was pretty good, for a sixteen-year-old. But then The Lovely Bones happened, and I realized I should have tried to do something with it.

      1. Well, not _that_ much of a challenge, since I think those rules are hooey anyway. Two of my favorite movies are The Long Goodbye and I Heart Huckabees, one of which starts with a character waking up and the other starts with cursing.

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