Monday, 25 October 2010

BEST AND WORST FIRST LINES

It's true, guys. The Pencils are out to get us...

Hello! Monday again (groan) but only three days until Friday (whee!).

Now, since I never seem to be able to participate in Road Trip Wednesday (the Blog Carnival on YA Highway) I've decided to just start stealing their topics at random. Mwaah-haa-haa! Ahem. No, really, I'm sure they wouldn't mind.

I'm particularly interested in first lines because I never seem to be able to start work on a book until the main character has 'spoken' the first line to me. I know this sounds weird. It IS weird. But that's just the way I roll. I can plan, plot, sketch character's faces, draw maps, use up whole pads of Post-Its, but until I 'hear' the character speak, I can't actually start the writing. For The Swan Kingdom, Alexandra piped up to tell me:

My first memory is of the smell of sunwarmed earth.

That line set the tone for the rest of the story, instantly showing me the dreamy, sensory 'voice' that I needed to get used to. It's a first line that, in a way, encapsulates the important themes of the book - a book about memories, about the earth and feeling a connection to it. And it's a sort of mirror image of the final line too, which is:

In the end, I know all will be well.

Coming up with the first line of Daughter of the Flames was a rather different experience. Having just finished TSK, I was trying to give myself some time off, but Zira (typically for her character, it turned out) was having none of that. She wanted her story told RIGHT NOW. And so she spoke in my ear:

I never knew my mother's name.

I mean, who could resist that? I started writing that day and six months later the book was finished. Once again, I see that in a strange way the first line is twinned with the last one, which is: 

My people.

The heroine has gone from being lost, not even knowing who she is, to having a perfect sense of her own identity and her place in the world. Looking at the first and last lines of my two upcoming books, I can see this bookend effect is something I apparently do all the time (without actually realising it before now!) but telling the first and last lines of Shadows on the Moon or FrostFire would be rather a spoiler, so I'll move on.

Although my first line is really important to me as a writer, I'm not sure first lines are as all important to the reader as some people seem to think. Very, very rarely do I read a first line and find myself utterly sucked into the narrative. The last time was Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolomore:

The audience didn't understand a word we sang.

I'm not really sure why that worked for me, it just did. However, because I'm aware that authors agonise over their first lines to the point of bleeding from their eyes, most of the time I tend to open books at a random page, somewhere in the middle, just to see what the writing is like when they've relaxed a bit. To me, that's the true test of the story. After all, you're not buying a book for a great first page, you're buying it for a great STORY.

That's not to deny that first lines do seem to make a big impression. Amazing first lines seem to enter the common vocabulary, even among those who've never read the book at all. Most people know the really famous ones, like the first lines of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen ("It is a truth universally acknowledged...") and Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier ("Last night I dreamt...") and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens ("It was the best of times..."). But what about some modern YA ones?

Despite my well documented dislike for the Twilight books, I have to admit that the opening line of Stephenie Meyer's saga is pretty darn good:

I'd never given much thought to how I would die - though I'd had reason enough in the last few months - but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.

Not PERFECT, mind. I reckon it would be a lot stronger if it just read:

I'd never given much thought to how I would die.

But still compelling, and definitely enough to get me to read on.

Meg Rosoff's debut YA novel How I Live Now, which is one of the most haunting books I've ever read, begins:

My name is Elizabeth, but no one's ever called me that.

A fantastic introduction to the main character's unconventional voice, and a line which tells you more about the story - with it's themes of alienation, loss and identity - than you can possibly realise at first. Another opening line which recently sent a shiver down my spine was:

Mommy forgot to warn the new babysitter about the basement.

*Shudder* That's from The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong, and, again, it warns you exactly what is coming up next. Spookiness. Lots of spookiness.

I personally think that the main purpose of that first line is to do exactly what Kelley Armstrong's line does, which is to make a promise to the reader about what kind of story is coming next. If you raise a question in your opening, you need to be sure that a) you answer it and b) that it's important to the story over all. By which I mean, not that you need to set your main conflict up right there in the first line, but that you need to understand what tone you're creating and what expectation you're raising. Let's say your first line is:

I never knew how much a dead goldfish stank until Mark Hinkey put one down the back of my shirt in biology.

If you story is going to be a snarky and hilarious contemporary story about school bullying, you're fine. If you story is going to be about an teenage outsider who is obsessed with death and figures out she can speak to ghosts, again, you're fine. If your story is going to be about a modern teen who falls in love with the school bully and has to figure out how to make it work, or how to let him go, fine.

If, on the other hand, your story is going to be a historical fantasy? This is a problem. But less obviously, if the story really has nothing to do with the school setting, if bullying is not a theme and never emerges again, if there's no grim, stinky-dead-goldfish undertone to the tale, then this opening line is not right. It's a great first line, but it's not setting up the right expectations for, say, a lyrical, dreamy story about a girl dealing with losing her sister to drowning. Just like:

Emma watched the sea turn to molten copper as the sun rose, the jagged rock spires casting black shadows onto the sand.

Is a nice opening line, but NOT for a hilarious and snarky story about contemporary bullying. Your first line, for me, is not just about trying to draw a reader in. It's about giving them some idea what they are going to get if they read on.

Now, given my title, I really need to 'fess up about my least favourite opening line that I've read recently - and it has to be the first line of Raised By Wolves by Jennifer Lynn Barnes:

"Bronwyn Alessia St. Vincent Clare!"

I'm not one of those writers who gets all prescriptive about other people's work. I think almost anything can work, so long as it's done well. Open with weather! Open with a dream sequence! Do what makes you happy! But... this - this opening with the main character's name being shouted - is just so overused. And so inefficient. What do we get from it? Only the main character's (overlong, way-too-poetic-to-be-real) name, which could easily have been revealed to us a dozen other ways, and the fact that she's in trouble, in an 'Oh, look how CUTE, he uses her full name when he's cross!' sort of way.  It tells us nothing about the book's tone, setting or themes, and it's also misleading in terms of character - the person shouting is NOT cute, for a start. This is a rare case where the opening line nearly put me off reading the book completely.

What are you favourite, or most hated first lines? Or, if you're feeling daring, the first lines of your WIPs?

20 comments:

Isabel said...

EEIRK, I absolutely DESPISE it when books start off with the main character's name being shouted like that. It really sends off a message that this author is so NOT individual, and not daring at all when it comes to first sentences. In fact, though it is not half as bad, one of the few things I dislike about the WARRIOR PRINCESS (EMERALD FLAME is the third in this series) is that though the first sentences are all in all pretty intriguing and artistic, instead of just using Branwen, the main character's first name (which means black crow or black raven. Isn't that the name of Alexandra's mother in THE SWAN KINGDOM? I read THE SWAN KINGDOM immediately after reading WARRIOR PRINCESS) anyway, instead of just using her first name, Frewin Jones feels some strange urge to use her full name, Branwen ap Griffith. A good name for her, I must say; at least it's not HORRIBLY fancy like the one above: Bronwyn Alessia St. Vincent Clare (yurk) but we already know her name! Is it that important that we must hear it *again* in the thesis statement?
Also, it's very important to keep your first sentence relatively short. No run-ons, that is just. The. Worst. Short and simple, to pull the reader in.

Anyway, I thought I *would* share with you the first sentence of my WIP, just to see what you think. It's the first sentence to my prologue, which I always have in my stories, even though I hear that most publishers prefer not to have them. Not that I'm thinking of publishing at my age. But I feel like if you have a sort of prophecy-ish story with kind of like... something important that happened *before* where you want to start the story, prologues are good. And I find them to be one of my strengths. I'm still not quite sure the thesis statement to my first *chapter* will last, so I won't show it, but...
Without further ado, I present to you my first lines... (Dun dunn dunnnn)

"It was broad daylight when the soldiers came for us."

Yes, a lot of drama for such a puny, vulnerable thing, and it doesn't sound too fantastic on its own, but I hope it's okay(?)
Please tell me.
I've found your first and last lines are always excellent, like the rest of your writing, and so relevant to the story. Other writers should also be checking this post out, because it was very helpful.

About the first lines of TWILIGHT.
This book, so I've heard, had to undergo some MAJOR editing before it was published, like really major. It was originally to be called FORKS, because of the whole vampire thing, (they carry around forks, apparently, don't ask me why) and the town's name. I don't think it was such a bad title, but the editor had the idea to turn it into TWILIGHT, which certainly made a huge hit.
So who knows what the original thesis statement was? Could have been anything, since the rest of the book is so bad, the first lines are rather suspiciously good.

Anyway, just my thoughts.
I should get back to doing homework...

Though I think you should know, first, that my favorite first lines come from THE SWAN KINGDOM and DAUGHTER OF THE FLAMES.
DAUGHTER OF THE FLAMES is my favorite of the two, though both of them are among my top favorites, and the thesis statements are just too good. I thought this before this post, and I still think it, after all the fabulous stories and first lines I've seen since then.

Oh, and one of my friends is reading DotF, on my recommendation...

Okay, okay, now I'll really get back to my homework...
Isabel

Alex Mullarky said...

Man. I hope, for my own sake, that if I am ever published, you like my books!

My favourite first lines are basically all those you've quoted above, which makes me think we have very similar tastes. But The Swan Kingdom has probably my favourite first line so far. It's just a beautiful image. As I have already told you :G

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: LOL! I've read the Twilight books and the vampires do not carry forks around with them, though the story would certainly have been a lot more amusing if they DID. The town they live in is called Forks, that's all. That made me giggle. I think your first line is really good - actually it's very similar to the first line of Shadows on the Moon. Thank you for recommending DotF to your friend.

Alex: Was I too snarky? I do *try* to be nice...but that first line is TERRIBLE. Not that Jennifer Lynn Barnes cares what I think. Her book kicks my books *ss in terms of sales. She's laughing all the way to the bank.

Marion said...

The thing I'm working on at the moment begins
"The boy woke sweating, hyperventilating, his heart hammering."

Marion said...

But the prologue begins
"The jacarandas were a long cloud of purple above the broken pavements."

Isabel said...

Really? What's the first line of Shadows like?
I just realized that my comment was wayyyy to long. I never can seem to stop talking...

I remember you did a review on THE SEVEN DANCING PRINCESSES a while ago. I saw its sequel at Borders, and it looked good, but they didn't have it. I think I'll order it online...

Zoë Marriott said...

Marion: I particularly like your prologue's first line! Very evocative. Thanks for sharing.

Isabel: I reviewed PRINCESS OF THE MIDNIGHT BALL, but I have to admit I didn't particularly love it. Perhaps the sequel will be better. You can see the first line of Shadows by going to the top of the blog and clicking on the Shadows on the Moon tab just beneath the blog title. At the bottom of that entry is a link to my website, where I've posted part of the first chapter - including the first line!

Isabel said...

OMG!!!
Awesome!!!
I'll check that out right now.....

Isabel said...

THE EMERALD FLAME is on store shelves!!!
Tomorrow I think I'm going to go buy it at Borders. I can hardly wait!!

Ohh, your first chapter was soooo good, so suspenseful! I LURVV it! I don't wanna wait nine more months!!! It's tantalizing!!! Ahhh!!!!!!

Zoë Marriott said...

Thank you Isabel - and remember, there will be one ARC available in the New Year, so you might get to read Shadows before that. I'm crossing my fingers for you that you can get Emerald Flame easily and love it as muich as you're expecting to.

meghaz said...

Zoe, you have every single right to love those first lines. If I picked up a book, any book, I can assure you I would read half of it just because of it's first line. Unless it's Twilight.

When I read Isabel's comment, I knew straight away that it was similar to SOTM. I sooooo don't want to wait so long!

Anyway, I've read both your books now, and I love them. I read DotF around 5 months ago, and I've got TSK at home right now. Sadly, both books are/were from the library. I don't want to give TSK back! I'm going to read it one more time before returning it.

BTW. I wrote a poem pretty long ago. A few days ago it occurred to me that I should email it to you. So I will. Soon (when I can be bothered). I can't wait to get your feedback on it!

Sorry I've been babbling for so long. See ya!

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks for commenting Meghaz. I'm really glad you enjoyed TSK and DotF - that's the sort of remark that makes me want to keep on writing. But you shouldn't really send me any unpublished work; legally it's a bit iffy, and I'm not an editor anyway. You ought to try sending it to a poetry magazine! It might get published, you never know.

meghaz said...

What, me? Send it to a poetry magazine? I don't think they would've LURVED it...

Zoë Marriott said...

Well, you never know if you don't try. I had a handful of poems published in poetry magazines and anthologies when I was a teenager and it gave me a lot of confidence when it came to writing, which I needed

Rebecca Lindsay said...

Hi :) I was going through your writng advice and came accross this post. I don't think I've seen it before and it was really interesting. After seeing how good the first lines you've listed are, I'm a bit worried that my first line might not be right or not exciting enough? Here's the first line:

Rose shivered and pulled her coat more tightly around herself.

I'm writing a trilogy and this is from the first book. Can you let me know what you think?

Zoë Marriott said...

Rebecca: I think that's fine! It implies movement and conflict of some sort - Rose is cold. If you're not entirely happy with it then go back when you've finished the book and see if it needs to change. Mine often do! I tinker and fiddle with them until they seem *right*. But I've seen published books with far less interesting first lines than that (such as the one above!).

lannisterlions said...

So this is an ages old entry but I just have to say... I don't know why I love it the way I do, but I have an incredibly large soft spot for the opening line of Dodie Smith's I Capture The Castle which is

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

I don't know what it is about that line but I fell in love right then and there and the rest of the book was just as fantastic.

Zoë Marriott said...

Lannister: I love that opening line too, and always have :)

Laura Mary said...

I once fell in love at just four words...

'Lyra and her daemon...'

Zoë Marriott said...

Laura: Heh. I think we all did! And that's a love which lasts a lifetime, too :)

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