Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Your novel's only got one shot at . . .

making a good first impression.

I don't like having a story set up for me. You know those novels that have three of four paragraphs telling you the backstory or setting up the real opening. I'd rather that info be threaded in while the opening scene is taking place.

Before I even considered learning anything about writing a novel I knew one thing: The opening has to be good. In fact, the only thing more important than a good opening is a good ending.

But on the other hand, some of my favorite books have okay openings. Especially when it comes to the first line. Silly fact about me - - I'm obsessed with opening lines. (When I'm in the bookstore I often grab a few books off the shelf and read just the first line.)

The truth is: you don't need a great first line - you need a good opening. This could mean the first line, the first paragraph, first page, or first chapter.

Consider these examples from some of my favorite books:

From Demon by Tosca Lee : It was raining the night he found me.

Not too spectacular. Brown and King recommend never starting a sentence with "It". "Was" is also discouraged. And, we have a weather report - albeit a short one. The second sentence is even worse. But the opening chapter is good. The result - one of the best books I've ever read.

From Thr3e by Ted Dekker: The office had no windows, only electric lanterns to light the hundreds of spines standing in their cherry wood bookcase.

Well that's just awful. In fact, the whole first paragraph is awful (for an opening). A single lawyers lamp spread its yellow hue over the leather-topped desk. The room smelled of linseed oil and musty pages, but to Dr. John Francis it was the scent of knowledge.

Okay. . . So far this is not a good opening. But look at the next line. The line I would have chosen to be the first.

"Evil is beyond the reach of no man." Now we're getting somewhere.

Despite the awful first paragraph, the opening chapter is fantastic. The result - one of the best books I've read.

Now on to my all-time favorite novel. Watchers by Dean Koontz.

On his thirty-sixth birthday, May 18, Travis Cornell rose at five o'clock in the morning. To quote Homer Simpson: Boring. But don't stop - keep reading the first paragraph. He dressed in sturdy hiking boots, jeans, and a long-sleeved, blue plaid cotton shirt. He drove his pickup south from his home in Santa Barbara all the way to rural Santiago Canyon on the eastern edge of Orange County, south of Los Angelas. He took only a package of Oreo cookies, a large canteen full of orange-flavored Kool-Aid, and a fully loaded Smith & Wesson .38 Chief's special.

Now that's an opening paragraph. The first few lines are used to set up the impact of the last.

So it seems my obsession with great first lines is a little misplaced. It's the opening that has to be good. Be it first line, paragraph, or chapter. (Of course it's great to have all three.) But even a great first line is nothing if the opening scene is not good. So actually, you need to have a good opening scene. Just don't waste too much time getting to it.

I went through my "To be read" stack and found this opening from Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas:

My name is Odd Thomas, though in this age when fame is the altar at which most people worship, I am not sure why you should care who I am or that I exist.

Now that's an opening line.

With all of that said, this is all very subjective. Let's look at what could be Dean Koontz's best novel in the deep, rich, literary thriller sense. From the Corner of His Eye. It does everything "wrong". The first chapter (half a page long) is told from omniscient pov and is just an info dump. The second chapter (three pages long) has no action. But it does give some rich characterization. The third chapter (9 pages long) is one of the best "opening scenes" I've ever read. No one will put that book down after that third chapter.

These three chapters are not connected and use different pov's, but the first two set up the third and add impact to the true "opening scene".

The result = one of the best books I've ever read.

**sidenote: Koontz almost always does something I'm told you shouldn't do - he switches tone. He almost always has two storylines running simultaneously and they are usually juxtaposed between good and evil, the miracles of good humanity and the relentless detructive force of the evil side of mankind.


Nicole said...

Maybe it's because I give such leeway to an author . . . but the book doesn't have to grab me right away. I don't mind being eased into a story provided the writing isn't elementary. I'll get suspicious if the first chapter doesn't engage me, but I'll press on just because sometimes stories take time to jell.

But you are in tune with what's generally expected in today's market. As you demonstrated with your examples, it's still subjective. Tosca Lee's first chapter was definitely enticing, and the book was so well written.
Probably of the examples you gave the last one had the most punch to me, but, honestly, I didn't mind any of them.

Dayle James Arceneaux said...

Exactly my point, Nicole. It helps, but the first line doesn't have to be great. It depends on how you're setting up your opening.

All three of those examples have really good opening scenes or chapters. But their first lines didn't blow me away. It didn't matter. These are three of my all-time favorites.

Check out my update on the post.

Janet Rubin said...

I love reading first pages. You should see me at Borders. If the first sentence grabs me, I read the first para. If the first para, the whole first page. If I stand there long enough to read the first chapter, I'm going home with it...

Kay said...

If I don't like the first two chapters, I probably won't read the third. Life is too short and there are too many books for me to waste time on one I don't love. I generally give it a couple of chapters. But if there is even the tiniest thing that captures my interest or my emotion, then I will give it a bit longer to see if it shapes up. Maybe I just like the character and want to see if they end up with an interesting story.
But with that being said, I don't mind a little backstory, if it interests me. I don't mind some description, if it interests me. The key is to engage me on some level. That's all I'm looking for.

Todd said...

What a load of crap!

As he sat there fidgeting with his stylish, yet all too necessary, reading glasses, completely enveloped in deep thought, he waded through a few of the millions of combinations of words which could be used to craft the opening of his response. After writing and rewriting several times, these are the sentences he eventually chose to initiate his reply to Dayle's not quite so articulately expressed sentiments.

In today's ADD society where people's senses are constantly barraged by a continual stream of words and images vying for their attention, you are much better off having something right up front that will hook them and draw them in.

Now, if your name is Koontz, or even perhaps Dekker, you can take more time at the beginning to set things up because your readers know that there will be a payoff later on. But if you are unknown, people have nothing else to judge your work on. They will more easily pass you by if you do not capture their imagination within the first few seconds.

Now to set this in the larger context of following/breaking "the rules": Dean Koontz has earned the right to bend, or even break, the rules because he has proven that he knows how to do so deftly and effectively. Apparently knowing when and how to buck the formula is a talent that comes naturally to him.

Dayle James Arceneaux said...

Todd, Todd, Todd, I know you long for the days when we disagreed on the minutia of every detail of the universe, but I think we're saying the same thing. HENCE, my obsession with first lines.

What I was saying is that I've been a little too strict. The first line doesn't necessarily have to be great but the opening does.

My last example also reinforces your point. Dean has three chapters to get to his real opening because he's Dean. If it were me, I'd have started with chapter 3.

Btw, there's a world class classical guitarist giving a free concert at the library tonight at 6:30.

Dayle James Arceneaux said...

One more thing, Todd. You're right. This is probably the worst written post I've done so far.

But, see, because I've written the rest so brilliantly, I've earned the right to phone in a couple.

Mark H. said...

"It was a dark and stormy night" worked for Snoopy, darn it.

Dayle James Arceneaux said...

Now, Mark, please tell me you're not comparing yourself to Snoopy. Let's face it, when you're as good as Snoopy, you can do anything.

Todd said...

Thanks for the heads up on the free concert ... I sure wouldn't want to miss that!

Mark H. said...

You're right, Dayle. Snoopy is king.

(hanging head in shame)