The Road to Hell is Really Paved With Killer Opening Lines

I’ve been thinking about first lines. Yes, you want to hook the reader, or at least have them think that oh, maybe this story won’t be a complete waste of my precious time. Yet there’s a fine line there between hooking the reader and false advertising, which is the same thing as cheating. And we’ve already been over the subject of cheating the reader, and all you really have to remember is this–don’t. Not ever. So I approach the subject of “first lines” with a mixture of fascination and unease. I’m kind of with Damon Knight on the whole notion, which I paraphrase: “The problem with starting a story with a really killer first line is that writers often spend the entire balance of the piece trying to justify it.” With the implication being that they’re doing this “rather than telling the darn story.” I think there’s truth in that. Yes, you want a good opening hook, but that hook is usually set in the first paragraph, not the first line. Even an impatient reader will trust you that far, if no farther. What you want is a first line that will lead the reader to the the second line, which leads them to the third and, well, you get the idea. A first line is important, but you don’t necessarily need it to grab the reader by the scruff if you can lead them by the hand. It is, as we’ve talked about before, a matter of trust. The first line has to convince the reader to trust you enough to read farther. The first line has to carry the implication, the hint, that you know what you’re doing. You may not believe you do, and that’s fine, nay even realistic. You’re trying to convince the reader.

I’ll use a few case in points from my own work:

“On the day after her seventeenth birthday, Marybeth’s father gave her in marriage to an ogre.” — The Ogre’s Wife, SF Age September 1995

“The Walker had been a god, once.” — Take a Long Step, Realms of Fantasy, April 1999

“A tiny moth-demon tried to batter its way into my rooms, doubtless attracted by the scent of poverty.” — Moon Viewing at Shijo Bridge, Realms of Fantasy, April 2006

There. Not “killer,” but evocative in their own way. They get the job done without calling too much attention to themselves, while the “killer line” is mostly shouting “Look at me! Look at me!” The thing to remember about a killer opening line is that it is not a team player, to put it mildly. Yet they’re so darned easy to write and so very hard to justify. How about: “Matthew, whistling a cheerful tune, crossed the border into the First Circle of Hell.” Would you read on? I would. I’d at least try to find out who Matthew is and why he’s so darn cheerful. But I’d stop reading in a second if at any time the author tried to weasel out of the story he or she had just promised. That’s the heart of the issue–the opening line is a promise which the story has to fulfill, which is less the tail wagging the dog as one hair on the tail of the dog now wagging the dog. Yet if the writer says Hell he damn well better mean Hell, and convince me as to why Matthew is so darned happy to be there–anything less is a cop out and a cheat. See what Knight was referring to? It’s no longer about the story, it’s about justifying that opening line. The first line can become a trap, especially when — as it often does — the story develops in ways that mean the opening no longer really fits. Then you have to either discard it or sacrifice the story to it. That’s the choice.

All that said, there’s a ridiculously easy way to beat the problem, so long as you understand that it is a problem. All you have to do is write the story first, then create the opening line after. Yes. I’m telling you to write the opening line at the end. Seems counter-intuitive, yay, even backwards, but it makes perfect sense. Once you have the story, and you know you have it, then go back and find the opening that grabs the reader like a carnival barker and pulls them in to the story you actually wrote. Now you understand–one hopes–what your story is about in a way that you could not at the very start, and the opening line can now speak to that, frame it and introduce it properly. Then, sure, make it rock. Make it knock the reader’s socks off if you can. Just make sure it’s on the same team as your story.

Otherwise be prepared to abandon that first line if the story actually started there, because, all too often, the story leaves it behind.

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7 thoughts on “The Road to Hell is Really Paved With Killer Opening Lines

  1. I ALWAYS go back and write the first line, even the first paragraph after the story is written! I thought everyone did that!

  2. I totally agree. Usually for me, it’s the “Look at me!” vibe that jumps out, and that sort of opening lines often turns me off because it feels like the author is trying too hard.

    • Thanks, Jim. Coming from such a good writer, I really appreciate that. (And anyone reading this who has not checked out Jim’s Livejournal blog, you’re missing out. Just saying.

  3. Killer first line that the rest doesn’t live up to is the text equivalent to the movie industry’s high concept. Or even, back to print, the SF’s vaunted Big Idea, which is supposed to justify problematic plot, character and story execution.

    Love, C.

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