Friday, August 4, 2017

What makes a perfect opening line? Jenn McKinlay

Opening lines -- I collect opening lines like a kid collects sea shells on the beach. Or, in the case of my nephew, a smelly dead crawfish that managed to stink up our vacation home until we tracked it to the pocket of his bathing suit where the stench almost knocked us out, but I digress.

Novel openings. What makes a good one? What magical combination of ingredients spellbinds the reader into continuing with a story? I have no idea. When it comes to opening lines, I am a fraud, a cheat, and a swindler. Why? Because my opening lines are almost always dialogue.

Truthfully, I never set out to start my books this way, but I am a horrible eavesdropper and I find it virtually impossible not to listen to other peoples' conversations, especially if they are being dramatic, funny, or tearful. Because, of course, I have to know why they are crying, maybe I can help! A friend of mine from college called this “dipping”. When we’d go to Conn Hall for dinner, I’d lean back to better hear the conversation behind me and she’d say, “Jenn, are you dipping again?” 


I’d shush her, giving her the double raised eyebrows look, and report back on the break up, argument, declaration of love, or what have you that was happening. Pro tip: If you don’t want people to overhear you, save the personal convos for when you're alone and not in a dining hall that seats three hundred people or at an intimate restaurant where the next table is mere inches away.


When I began writing, it was just natural to begin the story in the midst of a conversation, hopefully luring the reader into “dipping” just like I do. Yes, I still do it when a particularly interesting conversation unfolds around me. Bad manners, I know. Still I can't help it. For me, I find dialogue between characters to be the best way to set the tone of the book and it keeps me from info dumping a lot of background on the reader by weaving it into the conversation and hopefully scoring a few laughs along the way.


So, how about you, Reds? What are your tips and tricks for writing your opening lines? And what are some of your favorites?

68 comments:

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  2. My two favorite opening lines: “All children, except one, grow up.” This, of course, is the beginning of “Peter Pan.”
    The other is from Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”: “It was a pleasure to burn.”

    Others that have stuck in my mind over the years . . . George Orwell’s “1984”: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
    Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five”: “All this happened, more or less.”

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    1. Love Peter Pan - that is a perfect opening.

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  3. One of the best writers of first lines is Stuart Gibbs. He writes Middle Grade Mysteries, and I dare you not to want to read on after some of these lines:

    "As Greg hung from the prison wall, he realized how much he hated time travel."

    "I never would have been accused of stealing the koala if I hadn't thrown the human leg in the shark tank."

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    1. One of my favorite opening lines in a middle grade book is one to which every middle school student can relate: “This is how Kyle Keeley got grounded for a week.”
      It’s the opening sentence in “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library,” the first book in Christ Grabenstein’s great library series for middle school readers.

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  4. I always thought Snoopy said it best, "It was a dark and stormy night."

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  5. Jenn, I can still remember sitting in a workshop before I was published with Noah Lukeman, an agent who wrote THE FIRST FIVE PAGES. I read my first page aloud which gave him the chance to explain that one should never, ever start a book with dialogue, unless it's extraordinary in some way. Mine obviously was not! But yours is always funny and charming.

    I do spend lots of time hunting for the first line, because other than cover and back blurb, it's the reader's first chance to be sucked in. I love this one from my short story, "The Itinerary":

    "Detective Jack Meigs knew he’d hate Key West the moment he was greeted off the plane by a taxi driver with a parrot on his shoulder."

    And this is from Food Critic #8 which is in progress as we speak:

    "Some days you can take the temperature of our island’s anxiety by reading the column in the Key West Citizen called "Citizens Voice." "

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    1. I've noticed that if I write in first person, I don't use dialogue. So I think the point of view is a game changer for me.

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  7. I've always loved the opening line of David Morrell's FIRST BLOOD. But then when I heard David recite it during his interview at Bouchercon it went to a whole other level. It's almost poetry - so much said in such a small about of space.

    “His name was Rambo, and he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew, standing by the pump of a gas station at the outskirts of Madison, Kentucky.”

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    1. Hearing an author read their own first line would be a game changer. And that is a really good one.

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  8. I love "dipping," Jenn! One of my all-time favorite remarks, overheard in passing, was, "Not if it was a WOODEN leg." I have no idea what that conversation could have been about--anything from physical disability to furniture repair to unusual flotation devices to smuggling--but it has given me lots of room to speculate over the years.

    My favorite master of the opening line is Dick Francis. He was great at giving you the general setup and presenting you with a problem right at the start. This, for example, from "Driving Force": “I had told the drivers never on any account to pick up a hitchhiker but of course one day they did, and by the time they reached my house he was dead.”

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    1. love love love the wooden leg comment Gigi!

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    2. Gigi, you stole my favorite opening line! Now I'll have to think of another one!

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    3. What? Wooden leg? That's fabulous!

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    4. Now I can't wait for Jenn to work that wooden leg comment into one of her stories! I'll be watching for it!
      Jenn--how often do you use dialogue that you've overheard in one of your books? Has your dipping ever inspired a new story?

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  9. Do you know the game called "Ex Libris" -- first lines and last words --

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    1. A set of cards (from The British Library)
      -- on one side the title, author, and plot summary -- on the other side the first line or the last words.
      Person whose turn it is ("Reader") reads the title/author/plot and then flips a coin -- heads is first line and tails is last words.
      Players each write a plausible first line or last words.
      "Reader" writes down the correct answer from the card.
      "Reader" reads all answers, including the correct one, aloud.
      POINTS:
      1 point if your line is selected
      1 point for selecting the correct answer
      "Reader" gets 2 points if no one selects correct answer.

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  10. You can be sure I'm dipping on this! I am teaching a class on "great beginnings" in a couple of weeks at the writers digest conference in New York!
    That's interesting, because basically first line just has to ensure that you go on to the second line, right?
    I am very fond of Ken Follett's "The last camel collapsed at noon. "

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    1. Follett - genius. How can you not keep reading after a line like that?

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  11. Oh and the most inexplicable line ever overheard?
    "Not just Quakers, Seminoles!"
    I have pondered that one for years.

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    1. A Quaker Seminole creates a whole new image of the silent noble Native American image.

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  12. There was a time when I would only buy a book if captured at the first line. Now I am more forgiving since I can peruse an e book sample at my leisure.

    That is not to denigrate the import of first lines at all. It still must be well written.

    I love the idea of "dipping." Overheard conversations can be very entertaining, and I like to create a background story in my head.

    My vote for best ever first line is this: "They shoot the white girl first." Toni Morrison. PARADISE

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    1. Oh, I love Toni Morrison. Excellent choice.

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  13. Starting a book with dialogue is a lot like giving the readers a chance to eavesdrop. They are dropped right in the middle of...whatever it is. If the dialogue is intriguing, they are hooked from the start. No surprise, I love to eavesdrop too, and the ubiquity of cell phones has made it easier than ever. A few favorite first lines no one has mentioned? Graham Greene's and the immortal-IMHO-< "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents" Jo grumbled, lying on the rug.> And one more Best line I ever overheard? On a restaurant telephone"Guess what? I am in Chicago!" What was interesting? We were in NY.

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    1. It might have killed me not to find out why they said they were in Chicago!

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    2. I had fun making up a few scenarios :-)

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  14. Hmmm. Looks like Graham Greene and "one more" didn't paste. Grumble. Can you guess Greenes? It's this compelling beginning: And the "one more" was :

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  15. OK. Sorry for the tech difficulties. Greene wrote and the other was the great beginning of Huckleberry Finn.

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  16. I'm rather fond of "It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby." An old favorite from my childhood was the first line of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."

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    1. The CS Lewis one is my all time fave - which is why I put it first in my post. Makes me laugh every time!

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    2. I meant to mention that line from Julia's first book--it's brilliant.

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    3. Ha! I didn't notice the Lewis sentence in the image at the top.

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  17. First lines are important. I sat here for 5 minutes, stalling 'cuz I knew I didn't have a good one.
    These opening lines are so different yet all so very engaging:
    1. Once upon a sunny morning a man who sat in a breakfast nook looked up from his scrambled eggs to see a white unicorn with a golden horn quietly cropping the roses in the garden. Thurber, The Unicorn in the Garden
    2. "Where's Papa going with that ax?" White, Charlotte's Web
    3. In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on a leaf. Carle, The Very Hungry Caterpillar
    4. The accused man, Kabuo Miyamoto, sat proudly upright with a rigid grace, his palms placed softly on the defendant's table -- the posture of a man who has detached himself insofar as this is possible at his own trial. Guterson, Snow falling on Cedars.

    I am reminded again that reading is easy; writing is hard.

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    1. I am reminded, too, Coralee. And as a former children's librarian, I am just tickled that you included Eric Carle.

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  18. "I wear the ring." That's my favorite first line written by Pat Conroy in "The Lords of Discipline." The book is about a young man's tumultuous experience at a southern military academy, and that one sentence captures his complex relationship with his alma mater.

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    1. That book, read by both my two youngest daughters, is why the youngest one attended The Citadel.

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    2. A perfect case of less is more, which is SO very hard to do.

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  19. "The riot had taken on a beauty of its own now." The Thin Blue Line by Adrian McKinty.

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  20. I love the term "dipping."

    I used to start a lot of things with dialog. I try to balance it out now. Getting the right hook in that first line coupled with a quick grounding in the scene is tough.

    Mary/Liz

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  21. Another great opening, this one from Taste of Victory by Sandy Dengler.

    "Nothing. Nothing but Nothing. She stood in the middle of nothing and turned in a slow circle. Everywhere she looked - absolutely everywhere - she saw nothing."

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  22. Jenn, you've made me work this morning! I looked through all my books and discovered that only one out of 17 (18 counting the one in progress) starts with dialogue! Apparently that is not my forte.

    Here's one of my favorite first lines, from Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London: It started at one-thirty on a cold Tuesday morning in January when Martin Turner, street performer and, in his own words, apprentice gigolo, tripped over a body in front of the East Portico of St. Paul's at Covent Garden.

    And from Jim Butcher's Proven Guilty: Blood leaves no stain on a Warden's gray cloak.

    You can tell I like my fantasy novels!

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    1. Those are perfect! How interesting about your opening lines - do they come fairly naturally to you or do you have to rewrite and agonize a bit?

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  23. Joshilyn Jackson has some great first lines.

    Backseat Saints: "It was an airport gypsy who told me that I had to kill my husband."

    A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty: "My daughter, Liza, put her heart in a silver box and buried it under the willow tree in our backyard."

    Someone Else's Love Story: "I fell in love with William Ashe as gunpoint, in a Circle K."

    Then there's Alan Bradley's first Flavia de Luce, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: "It was as black in the closet as old blood."

    Lori Rader-Day's Little Pretty Things: "The walkie-talkie on the front desk hissed, crackled, and finally resolved into Lu's lilting voice: 'At what point,' she said, 'do we worry the guy in two-oh-six is dead?'"

    And one of my favorite books, a one-hit wonder by the former talk show host Craig Ferguson: "Cloven hoofed creatures passed this way."

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  24. And I can't believe no one has mentioned the opening line of Rebecca: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."

    Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter: “In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.”

    And of course, Barbara Kingsolver's amazing Poisonwood Bible: ""Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened."

    Dipping is one of the joys of solo travel. I was sitting in the cafeteria of the British Museum once, next to two women. One was ranting about her daughter and praising her son. The other was patiently listening, trying unsuccessfully to interject. I had an entire narrative around the complaining woman's life by the time my lunch was finished!

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    1. Karen - I adore Rebecca. Nice one! Interesting conversation at the museum - you have to wonder if the other woman began to feel like a hostage.

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  25. I was refreshing my memory about the opening lines of A TAle of Two Cities and found it was much longer than I thought. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,it was the age of wisdom,it was the age of foolishness,. . . And this contrasting goes on for eight lines. Who knew? I always thought this description also fit the 1960s to a T. I'm with you, Debs. Jim Butcher and Ben Aaronovitch always suck you right in with their first lines.

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    1. Oh, I'll have to check out Ben Aaronovitch - he's been on my list for a while.

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  26. Honestly, I have never been drawn to a book because of the first line. I look at the description on the cover and if words like "brutal", "senseless", "sadistic" are not used I will then flip through the book to see if it could keep my attention. So, authors, you don't have to worry about your first lines grabbing my interest. Just write a compelling story!

    I DO find myself listening to conversations!(I can't help it if people have loud voices!) While walking past the railroad station on a lunchtime walk, I passed by two young men who were sitting on a bench. One advised the other "you can always do what I did, and ask for probation instead of jail time, but then you have to be really careful what you do, and it's not easy."

    DebRo

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    1. Wow, I hope the guy chose probation. And thank goodness you don't weigh a book's merit by the first line since I don't agonize over them that much.

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  27. Oh Jen, you have made this list maker regret that I haven't kept a list of favorite opening lines. Maybe I can still start one, but so many great first lines have already passed by. A memorable opening line can cement my love for a book forever.

    Two favorite lines of mine are aptly focused on how stories themselves unfold.
    Graham Greene's The End of the Affair--"A story has no beginning or ending; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead."
    Edith Wharton's Ethan From--"I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story."

    I know I have other favorites, but I'll have to come back with them later if I think of them. I do also love the first line from Fahrenheit 451 that's been mentioned, "It was a pleasure to burn."

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    1. Those are great, Kathy. There are so many brilliant ones out there.

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  28. I've thought about writing about how my life would be different if I had made a phone call. The first line would be something along the lines..."I-f. Two letters out of 26. But put them together along with the word 'what' and how my life could have been different. What if I had made that phone call." The rest of the story? It all has to do with two men.

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  29. Have any of you played the game where you read aloud the first line of a book and add "and then the murders began"?

    Charlotte's Web is the iconic example: "Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
    And then the murders began.

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    1. That is hilarious, Jennifer, in a really dark way. I love it. I want to play!

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