First Impressions, Part one: The opening line

I couldn’t get the blood off my hands.  — First line of “Ash – A Thriller” by Jason Brandt.

This is going to be amateur hour again, here at the Shadow and Clay. I’m approaching the topic of how to draw readers in solely as someone who has read a lot of books and has heard from experts on this topic. Experts like Stephen King, Brian KlemsChuck Sambuchino, Miss Literati, Dr. K.P White and Victoria Grefer.

But mostly, I’m approaching this as someone who has spent the last week reading the first chapter of every “to-read” book on my stack, and sorting them into the “blog about” and “discard” piles. So I will be using specific examples about what caught my attention, and what lost it. Most of it will be subjective, but I hope there will be enough that is universal that the writers following this blog can find it useful.

I posted a little about this project in a Facebook group I belong to, Readers! – a home to all those who love books and want to just share their love, either specifically or generally. In other words, lots of book-shelf porn. *cough* Back to the topic. When I said I was reading the first chapter of each book, some people commented that they judge whether to read a book off the first paragraph, or even the first line. I couldn’t remember a single time I had read the first line of a book and not continued on to the second, the third, the entire paragraph and even the next. It usually takes me at least 4 chapters to give up entirely on a book, and so even this one-chapter judgment call seemed crazy to me.

And then I remembered a book in the discard pile. **Now a caveat – I did not read beyond the first chapter of this book, and the “discard” pile doesn’t mean that I might not eventually read it. It means that something in the writing, characters or the scenario irritated me to the point that I didn’t want to put it as a priority over other books. I’m including it here merely as an example of one of the worst opening lines (and paragraphs) I encountered in this sampling.**

Apparently, the strangest, yet most powerful thing has happened to me, which isn’t saying much. Accidental Leigh by Melanie James

Well… let’s break that down, shall we? Strike 1 is that the sentence is convoluted. There are FOUR commas (one of which is misplaced; another was placed to bracket  “yet most powerful”… and the comma after the sub-clause is missing). Imagine each one as a breath, a pause, a break in the flow of a reader tentatively exploring the new territory that is this novel. Commas are mini-walls within sentences; a barricade that must be surmounted by the reader while carrying the previous section with them.  Carrying three fallen soldiers over the last hurtle to encounter such a confusing, backtracking clause would cause even the most ardent recruit to desert. The last thing you want to do is have a reader WORK to get into your book. In a novel, the best first sentence is one they don’t even remember reading* because they’ve already moved on to the second, the third, etc. Make it short**.

And make it sweet. Not icky-sticky honeyed stuff, but an enticement to the reader. Something that makes them want to know what the hell is going on. When I posted Accidental Leigh’s first line in my Readers! Group, one poster commented that she fell asleep reading it. Strike 2 is that after you break through all the commas, this sentence is BORING. It’s VAGUE. And there are two clauses that give that impression – the first “Apparently” and the last “which isn’t saying much”. These two clauses kick what is actually happening (“the strangest, yet most powerful thing has happened to me”) squarely in the nuts and leave it on the ground crying for its mama. And even leaving those off, the “thing has happened to me” renders the view point character into a passive object. The sentence is in first person, but the POV character isn’t moved by this “strange and powerful thing”. So why should we be?

And Strike 3 is that overall the commas, the grammar issues, the lack of immediacy – each combine to decimate any desire to read the next sentence. There is no hook. What if the second sentence is as difficult and says as little as the first?

But as I said – I read the first chapter of each book (OK, that’s a lie. There’s one book I didn’t even make it a full chapter into, so I’ll talk about that later.) And I don’t like snap judgments. So here is the rest of the first paragraph:

 Apparently, the strangest, yet most powerful thing has happened to me, which isn’t saying much. After all, I’m a single, overworked and under-fucked elementary school teacher. This strange and magical thing wasn’t expected and I sort of stumbled on it by accident.

Eeek! This entire paragraph is fingernails on the chalkboard. Starting with an adverb. Telling not showing. A self-depreciating, passive character (who, by that, manages to sound like she’s also insult an entire profession). Unnecessary words thrown in to soften and weaken the action. The gratuitous f-bomb (if that’s someone’s button, it will drive them away without even getting two lines into your book. Even if it’s not, it raises a flag). And – worst of all – redundancy.

How to rewrite it (just an example/suggestion):

Why me? I’m just a single, overworked and under-appreciated elementary school teacher. But I accidentally discovered the most magical, the most powerful, thing. Something that would change everything.

Still not perfect (I would have preferred to leave out the “accidentally” but that’s a play on the title and without reading the entire book I had to leave it vague), but hopefully it makes some people prick up their ears and say “Yes? And then what?” But the book synopsis promised that it would be funny, and this set-up fails to deliver. Even BETTER would be to start in medias res – in the middle of the action. The quote at the start of this blog post is the first line from a book that drops the reader into the aftermath of a fire-fight in Iraq. It is visceral (literally), and almost forces you to read the full first paragraph in self-defense. Now opening lines don’t always have to be that dramatic, but it means there is no waiting for the story to start – it’s already there.

In the case of “Accidental Leigh”, an even better place to start the story would be after the first major event. The opening could go something like this:

“I can’t believe he’s DEAD, Stacy! The bitch killed him! What am I going to do now?” I swiped away tears with a crumpled kleenex and tossed it onto the pile by the side of my bed, missing a guttering mood candle by inches. On the other end of the phone my sister sobbed her sympathy. She had loved Vladimir nearly as much as I had. And that someone so brave and sexy had been taken out by a pack of low-life werewolves… how could an author just kill off her best character like that?

(All words are mine, except “low-life werewolves”)

Some people aren’t fans of starting books with dialogue. Me, I like it because I’m a snoop. I think it works in books (like erotica) targeted towards women, and that dropping right into body of the action works well for books targeted towards male audiences.

And IMHO, this would have struck the right chord of what I had been expecting from the book based off the synopsis – something quirky and centered around books. It also brings the one point of sympathy for the character in the first chapter front and center – what reader hasn’t cried over the death of a beloved character? After that connection has been made, the reader would be willing to take in stride the fact that the MC had broken up with her real-life boyfriend just prior to this because of his jealousy over her “special” evening planned with Vlad. And maybe even all the shenanigans that followed involving the school thinking she was in mourning for her entire family, killed in a bizarre sausage-truck accident.

See? When I put things like that, you’re intrigued by “Accidental Leigh”, aren’t you? Download the sample of the book and give it a go. As a writer (and not really an erotica fan), I may just be way too picky when reading a story that had potential… but I couldn’t shake the bad first-impression that it gave. If you read it, let me know if I made a mistake in judging it too quickly!

* As Chuck Sambuchino discusses in his blog post, when taken out of context most first lines are nothing special. Even mundane. That is OK – being an IMPEDIMENT to reading the rest of the story is not. Explore the links at the top for some great tips on how to craft excellent openers, but when all is said and done, if that’s the only part of your book people recall then you might as well have used “It was a dark and storm night”. Also, there are trends in writing and publishing. Most of the opening lines of some of the greatest novels of all time are using tactics that are currently out of vogue, like mentioning the weather or having the character dreaming/waking (mostly because they were subsequently copied ad nauseam). Keep that in mind. But my take is – if you’re NOT writing the Great American Novel, the best first line is the one that keeps them reading, not the one that stops them in their tracks.

**Miss Literati included in their blog post the first line of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and why it worked.

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number 4, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. – “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”, J.K. Rowlings

It also has four commas. But it DOES work because each clause is presented like a trail of bread crumbs, each small section providing clues about the Dursleys, Harry’s living  situation, and ultimately begs the question why being “normal” is a point of pride. That final aggressive “thank you very much” is brilliant, being the ultra-polite way of saying ‘mind your own f**ing business’. It has a bite to it. I assume the line resonated with the British, accustomed to members of the middle-class “keeping up appearances.” But I think it REALLY drew in Americans where being different is seen as a good thing… so who are these people who want to be NORMAL?


3 thoughts on “First Impressions, Part one: The opening line

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