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Sunday, June 8, 2008

First Line Comb-Overs and an Amazon Gift Card!


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.
—J. D. Salinger,
The Catcher in the Rye
(1951)

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.

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.

I'll start:
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.
-Howard Swindle, Jitter Joint
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.

So here's the second line, auditioned:
Stale from exhaustion and hours-old Jamaican Blue Mountain coating his teeth, Evan Braun’s urgent, but intimate exchange with the oak door spiked an inferno against the sweat sheen above his lips.
This 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:

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.

Kumbaya, people.

15 comments:

Sue L said...

samples and examples are always fun. I'll offer up a few.

"God, it hurts. Hurry up"
- Quid Pro Quo by M.Francis - it's what's sitting on my desk.

Also The Hob's Bargain by P.Briggs
Changes are frightening, I thought, even when they're changes for the better."


Here is one from a finished novel: "This grave’s empty, Sera." Mikháil winked and stretched out his palm. "Pay up."

and one that's finished in draft and going through edits: Daleena raked her fingernails up Vahn's sweaty back.


*biting fingernails*

Rashmi said...

This is fun! I like these following lines as they're intriguing, and made me ask one or more of these essentials - who, what, when, where and why.

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

"Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderlay again…".
-- Daphne DuMaurier, "Rebecca"

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

~ aBookworm

Sandra Ferguson said...

What fun! I'll bite.

My favorite all-time first line is really two sentences -- sorry, is that cheating?

Howard Roark laughed. He stood naked at the edge of a cliff.
--Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

okay, for mine --
Welcome to Hell on earth, Kyra Malone thought as she stared at the vultures – not the real type with monstrous flapping wings and scraggly beaks, of course – but close enough for government standards.
~Trickle of Lies

Hopefully, you really, really want to know exactly what kind of vultures Kyra's faced with and why. That was the goal anyway.

Thanks for the game, LA, loved it.

L.A. Mitchell said...

Sue,
I thought your empty grave opening was much stronger than the published one above it. It throws us immediately into the action and of course the puzzle--what kind of bet *was* this?

"Daleena raked her fingernails up Vahn's sweaty back."
My first reaction was Ew, then my brain clicked to sex. According to Maas, "A suggestion of sex is a sure-fire attention getter, but not every story can start that way."

Me thinks this would please The Donald, Sue :) Did I guess right?

Rashmi,
The first line of "Rebecca" is always quoted as memorable, but I just don't see it. I'd love to know your take on why you picked this one.

LOVE the opening to 1984. LOVE IT.

Sandra,
Yes, that's cheating. The Donald would open up a can of whoop ass on you.

"The Fountainhead" opening seems perfect. Short, to the point and definitely begs the question.

"Welcome to Hell on earth, Kyra Malone thought as she stared at the vultures – not the real type with monstrous flapping wings and scraggly beaks, of course – but close enough for government standards."

Makes me curious as to the other end of that vulture comparison. I thought about suggesting "Welcome to Hell on earth. Kyra Malone stared..." but although it shortens it, it's not as strong as before. Definitely shows off your voice.

Thanks for posting everyone :) Be sure to pop back for a visit and join in the discussion.

L.A.

Eric said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kim Lenox said...

Fantastic post, L.A.! Beloved is one of my favorites.

Hmmm, the first line of NIGHT FALLS DARKLY (the book I'm reading page proofs on now) is:

"Come out, Mr. Winslow." Archer stepped out from the stairwell onto the dark tenement roof. "It's your time to die."

I can't give you the first line for my wip, because ... well, dangit, that's something I'm still working on.

Rashmi said...

RE. Rebecca's first line - first, it's a dream and it just begs the question - is it good or is it a nightmare? Secondly, what's Manderley? What has happened in Manderley? Why is the narrator dreaming of this place, what powerful effect has it had on the psyche that the unconscious mind is visiting it in dreamland?

Unless one has read the reviews or seen the movie, a reader doesn't know what lies in store with that intriguing first sentence.

L.A. Mitchell said...

Kim,
I can't wait to read Night Falls Darkly. Aside from the beautiful cover, who can't fall in love with a hero named Archer. Great first line :)

Rashmi,
I agree. To look at it on fresh eyes, not knowing the story, does cast it in a different light. It also sets up expectations for the reader. Love the discussion here.

Don't forget to comment on each other's for more chances to win the "happy" :)

Sue L said...

(LA, I tried three times to post this yesterday and it wouldn't stick, but I finally figured out I had an open html tag. *sigh*)




>>I thought your empty grave opening was much stronger than the published one above it. It throws us immediately into the action and of course the puzzle--what kind of bet *was* this?

Thank you LA. That's from the novel I'm shopping right now. It's sitting on a couple of desks. The waiting game sure is hard!!

And yes, my second one is about a prostitute who is offered the chance to live like a lady. ;)


Sandra,
It's probably (ok, not probably, but definitely) presumptuous of me, but I'd rewrite Rand to Howard Roak stood naked at the edge of a cliff, laughing.

and

to play with yours: I'd split it up.

Welcome to Hell on Earth. Kyra Malone stared at the vultures -- not the real...


I don't care for the 'thought' tag (although Patty Briggs uses it in the example I pasted above). I know there are times it does work better, but I think, more often, if you're deep enough in POV, it's not needed. Of course, that's really really hard to do with an opening line.

with that in mind, what about switching your first line?

Kyra Malone stared at the vultures – not the real type with monstrous flapping wings and scraggly beaks, of course – but close enough for government standards.

Welcome to Hell on earth.




Kim, I love the Mr. Winslow line. It's very intriguing.


"Worlds of Wonder" by David Gerrold has a chapter on first lines that is just wonderful. Maas talks about the intrigue factor. The thing I think that Gerrold adds to that is the comment that the intrigue should carry the implication of a larger context that needs to be explored.

L.A. Mitchell said...

Sue,
I didn't know we had a prostitute heroine in common. *fist bump* :)

The debate about this line fascinates me. Here it is both ways:

Howard Roark laughed. He stood naked at the edge of a cliff.
--Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

Howard Roark stood naked at the edge of a cliff, laughing.
--Sue's rewrite

Hmm...Although Sue has written in there one of THOSE "ing" words, it does make you wonder why Rand separated it as she did. Did she want the reader's initial impression of the protagonist to be laughing? Was injecting the word "naked", in her mind, one of those hit-you-over-the-head bang up beginnings that then fall flat. I suppose that's the danger of a really great opening line. The second must be better than the first and so on.

I adore the suggestion you made for Sandra's start. Putting that line alone for emphasis after the first strengthens it, whereas the great descriptive line about the vultures doesn't get pushed aside as an afterthought at the end of a sentence. What do you think, Sandra?

Gerrold makes a point. The puzzle must be something we wish to explore, not merely a device to hook the reader. Have you ever read a great first line, then felt betrayed? Like the author used a gimmick on you to suck you in, but the first page didn't deliver? Hate that.

I've already broken a counter record for the past two days! Make sure you leave comments to be eligible for the drawing :)

Marilyn Brant said...

Oh, fun! I'll play :).

This first line is from Jennifer Weiner's story collection--The Guy Not Taken: "At just past three o'clock in the morning, Bruce Guberman and the rest of the liquored-up bachelors piled into a booth at World of Bagels and hatched the plan to kidnap Bruce's girlfriend's rat terrier, Nifkin."--from "Good Men"

Made me laugh :). I also loved Rashmi's nod at Austen's P&P (of course!) and Sandra's heroine observing the vultures...made me wonder who they symbolized--and even though I realized they were people not birds, I still imagined them as having those monstrous black wings... Great imagery.

Okay, this is the first line of my According To Jane: "I always thought Homer painted his character Odysseus as a real slow learner with that whole twenty-year-journey thing."

Sandra Ferguson said...

OMG, I love your opening line, Marilyn. Great -- great -- great.

Sue, thanks for the rewrite. I'll steal it -- effective immediately. Yes, it works fine for me. It's one of those line that actually came from somewhere else in the story, but begged to be delivered first. Your tightening is perfect. Thanks.

LA, what fun is this game.

As Rebecca has never been one of my favorite reads, I'm with you, LA, I just don't get it, but I can certainly appreciate that there are deeper, more intelligent readers than I and can handle this writing.

As for Ms. Rand, I'm not sure she ever considered what worked for readers. From the philosophy I've discovered on Ms. Rand, she wrote for herself, not entertaining that the masses would understand. As most of Ms. Rand's sentences were long and complex, I'd say she planned on drawing in the unsuspecting to her tale. BTW, if you've only seen the water-downed film version and never read this piece of literature, you've missed out.

Thanks for letting me play, LA.

L.A. Mitchell said...

Marilyn,
Your first line has a wonderfully familiar tone about it, like the reader already knows this narrator over a cup of coffee or at a book club.

Sandra, love that we were able to make a suggestion you liked.

Sounds like Ayn Rand may be on to something. If we can't write to please ourselves, who will we ever please?

Thanks so much for the insight:)

Here's the opening line from the book I'm reading:

"He was insufferable, one of those boy geniuses, all nerve and brain."
-Charles Baxter, The Soul Thief

Not stellar, but I've known a few people just like this in my lifetime. Haven't you?

Marilyn Brant said...

Re: The Soul Thief line--yeah, I have known people like that, L.A. And, even more unfortunately, I dated a couple of them :).

Bad, bad choices!

Here's another good first (and second) line--from Jenny Crusie's Bet Me:

"Once upon a time, Minerva Dobbs thought as she stood in the middle of a loud yuppie bar, the world was full of good men." (But that's the set up--the punchline comes with the second line...) "She looked into the handsome face of the man she'd planned on taking to her sister's wedding and thought, Those days are gone."

Always makes me laugh.

Sue L said...

>>Sue,
I didn't know we had a prostitute heroine in common. *fist bump* :)

hehehe *fist bump back* Good!! Maybe we can start a trend. :)

I'm glad you like the snippets from Gerrold. His book is geared to SFF, but makes some very good oveall points that apply to all writing.

>>>At just past three o'clock in the morning, Bruce Guberman and the rest of the liquored-up bachelors piled into a booth at World of Bagels and hatched the plan to kidnap Bruce's girlfriend's rat terrier, Nifkin."--from "Good Men"

I love this one. I laugh every time I read it.


>>Sue, thanks for the rewrite. I'll steal it -- effective immediately. Yes, it works fine for me. It's one of those line that actually came from somewhere else in the story, but begged to be delivered first. Your tightening is perfect. Thanks.

!!! Wonderful!