I'm working my way through Donald Maas's Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. Different in many ways from his non-fiction book; similar in his straight-shooting style. Chapter 25 is all about first and last lines in novels. Weather and description rarely sing. Scene setting isn't always strong. Mood can be disastrous. Action doesn't immediately engage the reader unless there's something puzzling about it. According to Maas, great first lines have the "intrigue factor."
What's the intrigue factor? A mystery. Something that makes us inwardly shout, "What the hell did that mean?":
124 was spiteful. —Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)
or awakens our subconscious into charging ahead to find out what the second sentence will bring. Our eyes race forward to see if any answers lie in those words. If not, what about the third line? At this point, the reader is hooked.
Great first lines lead readers into the world of the novel:
When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.
—James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss (1978)
They may raise a unwritten question begging to be answered:
In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.
—David Markson, Wittgenstein's Mistress (1988)
or present vivid physical situations in an arresting way:
The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.
—Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)
The best lines often ignite a character's point of view as J.D. Salinger did in Catcher in the Rye:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.Maas's exercise for writers is to find the intrigue factor in their opening line. What question does it pose? What puzzle does it present? If writers are unable to answer these questions, first try tightening it. Make it shorter. If that doesn't work, Maas advises, "audition your second line for the lead spot. Or combine elements from your first paragraph into one short, super-charged sentence." The exercise does not end until the writer has created a different first line.
—J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
American Book Review has compiled a list of the 100 Best First Lines From Novels. Read through them to find inspiration, then audition your own. If you're a reader, pick up the one your bookmark is parked in. Ask yourself, "Do I want to hear the next line?" Ask us. Post it here.
Even his own breath reeked of psychosis.
Analysis: short, back loaded with "psychosis"--the hero's internal conflict. "Even" is a nasty bugger--almost NEVER useful in literature, but it does speak to how overwhelmed he is. Can't get much deeper point of view than smelling your own breath. But does it match up to The Donald? (Maas, not Trump) Let's see. Does it pose a question? No. Raise a puzzle? Not really. Similar to this one (as it starts with mood or mental state--a Donald no-no):
He plunked two ice cubes into the glass and submerged them with Johnny Walker Black.However, Mass goes on to explain this lines gets an acceptable reading because the protagonist is an alcoholic and the plot concerns a murder in a rehab clinic. Vital information straight out of the gate.
-Howard Swindle, Jitter Joint
So here's the second line, auditioned:
Stale from exhaustion and hours-oldThis second sentence has been a bitch. Some are lost in the denseness. Some think he's humping the door, which is clarified in the third sentence:
coating his teeth, Evan Braun’s urgent, but intimate exchange with the oak door spiked an inferno against the sweat sheen above his lips. Jamaican Blue Mountain
The peephole’s convex glass bubbled the front lawn into a telescopic blend of muted autumn colors.
But does it all raise a puzzle? Maybe. What does he see through the peephole that is making him sweat? Are these three lines enough to hook a reader? Jury's still out.
Your turn. Post the first line of your work-in-progress or the opening sentence of a book you're reading. Open it up to the same scrutiny a reader will bring to the page. Audition your second or third lines. Give each other feedback. Have fun. How often to we get to play "The Donald"?
Everyone who offers up first lines for analysis or gives feedback will be entered into a drawing for a $5 Amazon gift certificate. The more you post, the more chances you have to win. Let's break my statcounter record and help each other.