I’ve been thinking a lot about first lines recently, how a novel opens. We frequently hear about how this can make or break your novel, especially when you’re first starting out. Maybe that’s dramatic, but I can tell you from experience that a great opener can make a big difference in whether I dive into a book or sigh heavily and see if I can get through the first chapter.
Here’s a great opener.
“An abandoned auto court in the San Berdoo foothills; Buzz Meeks checked in with ninety-four thousand dollars, eighteen pounds of high-grade heroin, a 10-gauge pump, a .38 special, a .45 automatic and a switchblade he’d bought of a pachuco at the border – right before he spotted the car parked across the line: Mickey Cohen goons in an LAPD unmarked, Tijuana cops standing by to bootjack a piece of his goodies, dump his body in the San Ysidro River.”
—James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential
Why does this work? Well because it’s tense as hell. Serious shit is going down and Buzz Meeks, whether he’s a good guy or bad, is ready for it. Or maybe he’s not, but we sure as hell are going to keep reading to find out.
Here’s a completely different example
“Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.
-Neil Gaiman, American Gods
This one starts with the character and then sets them at odds with out perceptions of this character. He’s a big scary guy in prison, who spends his time learning coin tricks and thinking not just about his wife but how much he loves her. Something is just a little weird here, the way the language is presented. I’m not sure what’s off yet, but I want to know, so I’m going to read more.
So, now I want to present to you a terrible opening. It’s mine, from a book I wrote long ago. I’m using this as my first example because although it’s terrible, it’s also typical. That is to say, in my readings I have come across openings like this more than a few times.
The night was dark and stormy. The kind of night you’d expect when you were going to an English castle but I wasn’t happy about it. I wasn’t happy about anything then, especially not the English castle part but I was almost there and the silence that had settled over the blue van would soon be broken.
Okay first, let me point out for anyone who doesn’t know, that the night was dark and stormy is the clichest cliche in the book of cliches. But at least the second line tries to acknowledge that cliche, awkwardly, with a fragment. Then for some reason the narrator tells us she wasn’t happy about it. What it is? Well that’s not very clear. But she’s also unhappy about the English castle, oh and apparently she’s in a silent blue van.
Nothing about this opener works. It is all over the place, trying to establish setting, mood, tone and time period all at once. It’s biggest problem is that it smells like a big stinking novice, but that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be corrected. While we have to dig into this jumbled mess to discern what the writer (young moi) was trying to get across, the sentiment itself is not completely off course.
The storming sky was as black as my mood as our blue van splashed through mud puddles toward the looming English castle.
Well that’s kinda better. It compacts all those things from the first opener into something that might not send readers throwing the book into the dark and stormy night. Or what about this?
It was raining, of course it was raining. We were on our way to an old castle after midnight. Could it be more cliche?
This introduces us to our narrator quite well. She is not having this English Castle shit.
Or what about:
Honestly, I think I would choose the third, although it might be too shocking for certain readers. Two lines that present the entire mood of this narrator much better than that lengthy monstrosity about silence in blue vans and not being happy about dark and stormy nights or English castles.
What do you think? How could we improve this opener? What is your favorite opener?
I will continue to post my own old starts here to break down and improve, but I’d also like to open up the floor. Do you have a bad opener you’d like to improve? do you want to know why it’s not working? Shoot me a message or drop a comment.