Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Why the first lines in your story should grip the reader....

"The last thing one discovers in composing a work is what to put first."
Blaise Pascal 1623-1662
 Pascal was a French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and Christian philosopher. He was a child prodigy who was educated by his father in Rouen.

And he clearly knew that with writing, it is important to make sure you put the right things first!     


                                                          Jane Austen's desk
Once a upon a time, long before computers, television, social networks, e-books, cell phones, and other distracting technology were even imagined, storytellers like Jane Austen, George Elliot and other famous writers of the times could craft a story slowly, building the plot as they wrote. People who could afford books, often had the leisure to spend time reading and rereading them, talking about them and sharing them. 

With so much technology in our lives now, and vast numbers of books to choose from, a lot of readers, today, browsing bookstores and libraries looking for a "new" writer will often choose a book to consider based on the book's cover. And when they open it, they will read the first few lines, see if it grabs their interest, and if it doesn't .... they move on to the next book. I confess I do this... ahem.

What publishers want (even demand now) is for the writer to start at a place of "grabability" (my own word, I think!) with the screech of brakes and metal against metal ... or a few intriguing or beguiling few words spoken by a character or narrator.

Or at the very least, to have the first few sentences promise something that makes a potential reader want to read more. I happen to agree with this. 

If I have any advice to give, I would say, always start your story in the middle of "something" - never at the "beginning". No one wants your character to wake up on a normal morning and then spend four pages talking about their morning ablutions. 

That's not to say that writers long ago missed this "grab the reader point" entirely. After all, many good storytellers like Dickens instinctively knew that an engaging story should start with a pop of interest for the reader! 

Mind you, a good story has to follow those first few lines with a substantial cord of energy that takes the reader through the entire book!

One of the first and arguably most recognizable lines in writing history is:
"Call me Ishmael" from Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Not my favourite book but it is a good opening line. Or at least a memorable one. And short!

And here's another very recognizable first line from Charles Dickens', "A Tale of Two Cities": "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,(but there is much more more to it that that - and it carries on!) ..... it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way."

Wonderful opening. But nowadays, one would be advised by an editor not to go on for too long with the first line. Relaxed, introspective reading has changed in the past few hundred years. Sadly. A sharp, short and enticing introduction is the best idea to grab distracted readers!

I didn't take writing classes when I started writing, but I was an avid reader of all forms of fiction and read writers who wrote the first early popular novels and enjoyed seeing the changes over the years. Writers of all eras are great teachers. Now I sound like I am 250 years old. Just feels that way.....

I have always kept a list of favorite first lines in notebooks -- beside the titles and authors of those books. I transferred some of my most-liked to my computer a while ago for this blog. I had to decide as I copied them, why each of them drew me into each book - all so different from each another.

I decided it is the promise those first few lines offer to the reader. The promise of something unknown and compelling.

Here are some of my favourite first lines by some well-known writers.

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

(Who wouldn't be intrigued by that first line!)

"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." 
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.C Lewis, 

(This quote always makes me laugh!)

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." 
― 1984, George Orwell

                                       (Why didn't I think of that line first!)

"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."
― David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

(I used this quote in The Watcher, when Emma Sweeney is reading to the huge old man in the strangely decorated farmhouse in Bruide.)

― Witch Week, Diana Wynne Jones, 

(It is said that this novel, of all she wrote, was Wynne Jones' favorite book. You may recognize another series written some years later which took a number of ideas from Wynne Jones' series ;-)

“Where shall we three meet again in thunder, lightning, or in rain? When the hurlyburly 's done, when the battle 's lost and won.That will be ere the set of sun. Where the place? Upon the heath. There to meet with Macbeth. I come, graymalkin! Paddock calls. Anon! Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover the fog and filthy air." 
 William Shakespeare, Macbeth

(Love that word "graymalkin". I found out it means gray cat!)

"Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person."
 Back When We Were Grownups, Anne Tyler

(I have lived the experience of that first line . Many of us have. It says so much.)

"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." 
 I Capture the Castle,  Dodie Smith

(I was instantly hooked when I read this first line. The narrator of this book is wonderful.)

"There are dragons in the twins' vegetable garden."
― A Wind in the Door, Madeleine L'Engle

(What a first line! Dragons will do it every time!)

Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.
—  2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke 

(A book that was made into a movie that had me mesmerized, while people all around me walked out of the theater in confusion and disgust. A watershed book -  and movie  - for sure.)

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.  
— The Go-Between, L. P. Hartley, 

(Hartley's is one of my favorite quotes. As a researcher into my family's past as well as deep into past times for my novels, it is a very true and witty observation.)

"Art Mathews shot himself, loudly and messily, in the center of the parade ring at Dunstable races." 
— Dick Francis, Nerve 

(The photo  is Dick Frances when he was a champion jockey. He went on to become a best selling mystery writer around the world. I have all of his books.)

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." 
— Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, 

(Couldn't leave that one out, could I? It is my daughter's favorite first line - and one of mine!)

"All children, except one, grow up."
— Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie 

(All the photos I have seen of Barrie appear to be gloomy and he always looks ill. This is one of the few pieces of art/photos I have found that has a lighter feeling to it. This is a great first line, but we all know there are many many Peter Pans still going strong out there! ;-)

"Take my camel, dear," said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass." 
— The Towers of Trebizond, Rose Macaulay 

(I read this book years ago and enjoyed it a lot according to my notes ...and this line still tickles my fancy. I must read it again.)

The New York Times wrote at the time it was published"Fantasy, farce, high comedy, lively travel material, delicious japes at many aspects of the frenzied modern world, and a succession of illuminating thoughts about love, sex, life, organized churches and religion are all tossed together with enchanting results."

"There are various ways of mending a broken heart, but perhaps going to a learned conference is one of the more unusual."  
— No Fond Return of Love, Barbara Pym

(One of my top ten writers. I love every sentence of her work. Her wit is clear in this first line.) 
Note: The young man in the photo is  Henry Harvey, the exasperating object of Pym's own unrequited love while in her twenties. I read her letters and diaries in a book edited by Hazel Holt "A Very Private Eye". A friend bought for it me in New York many years ago. I treasure it!

"Last night I dreamed I went to Manderly again." 
— Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier 

(I had to include this one, because that first line attracted me to this book in my teens. I loved it and reread it many times over.)

"The frog's legs were less appalling then the children had expected. They slid out of the tin with a plop...."
— The Whispering Knights, Penelope Lively

(Penelope Lively is one of my favorite writers. She has written brilliant short stories and novels for young readers; and brought her thoughtful insightful artistry to her books for adult readers. One of my most liked of her books is "Passing On". The story is about middle aged and unmarried siblings Helen and Edward, who, on the death of their domineering mother must face the consequence of their mother's hold on their lives for so many years. Helen and Edward slowly learn to accept what has been lost for so long and learn to embrace what can be retrieved.)

"The coffin stuck fast at the angle of the garden path and the gateway out to the road. The undertaker's men shunted to and fro, their hats knocked askew by low branches, their topcoats showered with raindrops from the hedge."
— Passing On, Penelope Lively


Now .... arguably, one of the best last lines of a novel......

‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.’
— A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

There will be more of "first lines" posts, I hope. If you have a compelling first line from a well known writer feel free to post it! 


Unknown said...

"Where's Papa going with that axe?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. From EB White Charlottes Web
This is not what you would expect from a beloved childrens book :)

Margaret Buffie said...

You are so right, Stella. It's a great first line!

Anonymous said...

"We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck." FEED, by MT Anderson (2002)

Anonymous said...

These are all great -- some true classics. (As is Stella's)

Margaret Buffie said...

Karyn -- I have not read that book, but the first line is really funny! I have to look it up.

Margaret Buffie said...

Thanks, Karyn. I have so many more! One day I will do another blog on it. So whenever you find a great first line keep track of it for next time!

Anonymous said...

Loved it! Must go through some of my own faves and write them down!

Erna xox

Margaret Buffie said...

Yes, keep a list, because I am going to do another one of these asking people to submit their favs and then I can get more input from others. xo

Anonymous said...

Great blog post, Margaret.

Margaret Buffie said...

Thanks, Kristin!