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Writing Craft: The Challenge of Writing An Opening Line of Staggering Genius

Indie author Kathryn Guare shares her thoughts on the importance of opening your novel with a memorable, brilliant first line.

Photo of the self-published author Kathryn GuareI’ve been thinking a lot about first lines, lately.

Creeping towards the publication of my second novel in a planned series of suspense thrillers, I’d already been obsessing over every comma, every unnecessary occurrence of the word “that” and every instance of throat-clearing phrases my fingers automatically type while I’m puzzling over what I’m really trying to say.

With these details disturbing my sleep, I didn’t need an epic crisis of confidence over the first sentence of my novel, but that’s what I got, once I carelessly clicked my way into a blog post titled The Power of a First Sentence.

I know Mark Rubinstein wasn’t intending to persecute me. He was likely wracking his brain for a blogging topic (as are we all) and thought this would be something fun to share, guaranteed to generate comments. It is fun, in a way, to again read the iconic lines one expects to find on such a list (Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina), and interesting to be introduced to the opening salvos of authors unfamiliar to me. All very entertaining and innocent. It’s when I started to focus on the larger premise of the blog—as it related to me—that I began to sweat.

Was my first sentence good enough? Did it set the right tone? Could it capture the reader and draw them forward with its powerful, irresistible force? What if it didn’t?

Well, if it didn’t, my book would fail—fail miserably according to Mr Stanley Fish, the American literary theorist (I’m not quite sure what that is), who opined in a New York Times column in 2007 that the quality of a first sentence is the single most important criteria for evaluating whether a mystery will be worth reading. Thus, in the time it takes the average reader to absorb the first words on the page—five seconds? less?—my fate would be sealed.

A dark night of the soul indeed, which saw me hunched over the keyboard, my first sentence before me, tinkering away like a pointillist trying to fix a pinprick of color in exactly the right spot. I reached to my bookshelf, looking for reassurance, and at first got none from my random selection:

“The truth is, if Major Dover hadn’t dropped dead at Taunton Races, Jim would never have come to Thursgood’s at all.” (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy)

Sigh. John le Carré. Brilliant, of course, but then I decided to take a more in-depth look at the first sentences in the early works of some of the most successful suspense authors writing today, and the fever began to lift:

“Something was wrong.” (The Bat, Joe Nesbo’s first Harry Hole novel)

“She woke in the dark.” (Naked in Death, J D Robb’s first “In Death” novel)

“It was raining in Richmond on Friday, June 6.” (Postmortem, Patricia Cornwell’s first Kay Scarpetta novel)

“My name is Kinsey Milhone.” (A is for Alibi, Sue Grafton’s first alphabet novel)

“I was arrested in Eno’s diner.” (Killing Floor, Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher novel)

Cover of Kathryn Guare's first novel, Deceptive Cadence

Kathryn Guare’s debut novel

I have nothing to say either in favor or against the quality of the books themselves, but it is an established fact that they have all sold extremely well, and I think it is self-evident that these opening sentences are simple, straightforward and workmanlike.

Concluding pep talk to myself: the first sentence of a novel is exactly that—nothing more, and nothing less. It is the building block and the foundation from which to build everything else. It needs to work, but it does not need to be a work of art onto itself. If you like it yourself, then stop obsessing over it.

“The house was still far from empty.”

First line from The Secret Chord, Kathryn Guare’s second labor of love

Calling all indie authors: what’s the favourite first line you’ve ever written? And do you think it made a difference to your book’s sales?

 

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37 Responses to Writing Craft: The Challenge of Writing An Opening Line of Staggering Genius

  1. Susan Yanguas November 9, 2013 at 4:07 pm #

    I’m wondering if the first line “rule” applies to Chapter 1 or the Prologue, if you have a prologue.

    I have what I think is a pretty good first line for my Chapter 1, but the Prologue is written in a different “style” (not first person, as the rest of the book). I should probably have great first lines for both, but is one more important that the other?

    Rasana – I really liked your first line.

  2. Virginia Gielow November 4, 2013 at 8:28 pm #

    “Following her parents’ fatal airplane crash, Grace Taylor learned she was not who

    she thought she was when she discovered a necklace and note in her mother’s dressing

    table.”

  3. Kathryn Guare November 2, 2013 at 4:58 pm #

    I love Peter’s and Theo’s comments above that the first line should maybe be the last thing to think about. “For heaven’s sake, write the book first!” seems like something I should print out and post above my computer! I guess it is when we’re in the final stages of tweaking that we really begin worrying about the all-important first impression. Not to get us off on a tangent, but since I’ve come down from the cliff about my first line, my next “neurosis” is whether or not to put a teaser line on the front cover. This seems even worse! You haven’t even opened it yet, and I’m already trying to knock your socks off!

  4. Rasana Atreya November 1, 2013 at 12:46 pm #

    I actually put a lot of thought into my first novel mainly because my novel isn’t what you’d call mainstream (fiction set in India):

    “Good thing you aren’t pretty, Pullamma,” Lakshmi garu said with a laugh. “Can you imagine the headache if we had to hide you, too?”

    Working on the perfect (for me) line meant I also worked on the rest of the chapter (and, hopefully, book) tightening it as much as I could.

  5. Sue Noye Clark November 1, 2013 at 9:39 am #

    I do like what you’ve written – yes, I know how it feels (don’t we all?) to obsess over every comma, and worry whether you’ve used the right word, and if you have, worry whether you’ve used it too often.
    And as for the first line…. I sometimes think you can meddle so much that you lose the essence and the freshness of what you’re attempting to say. That saying, I continue to meddle and fiddle and change words and take things out and put them back – oh, this writing lark! But how I love it.
    My first novel (Dependence) is coming out next month. Its first line is “I would watch him preparing it.” Oh, the hours I spent working on those few little words. They’re simple, which I like. How successful they will prove to be, I’ll have to wait and see.
    All good wishes,
    Sue

  6. Penelope Silvers October 31, 2013 at 5:21 pm #

    Your first line prods me to read further, Kathryn. Now I need to find out WHY the house was still far from empty.

    The line did the job for which it was intended. 😉

  7. Kathryn Guare October 31, 2013 at 5:17 pm #

    Gosh, I’m sorry for arriving so late to this discussion! Thank you all for your generous comments, and I’m excited this sparked so much good discussion. Proof that sometimes it pays to share your lonely obsessions. I’m going to respond individually to a few of these thoughts, but wanted to first note an absolutely gorgeous first line that I came across while researching this post: “Floating upward through a confusion of dreams and memory, curving like a trout through the rings of previous risings, I surface.” That’s from Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, and the funny thing is that I read it ages ago and have only a bare recollection of the plot! In parallel with that discovery, I noted most of my all-time favorite books did not have first lines that stuck with me, and when I read them again now, none were of a nature that I would think especially wonderful to share. I guess first lines are like the writing experience in general – you can’t force it, but when something comes out naturally that makes you stop and think “damn, I think that’s pretty good” it’s a wonderful thing!

  8. J.A. Schneider (Joyce) October 31, 2013 at 4:26 pm #

    “Maria Moran’s first inkling of trouble was the coppery taste in her mouth.”

    First line of EMBRYO, my first e-book. That first line sums up the whole medical horror to come.

    Even in earlier trad pubbed days, I’d walk around bookstores & just read first lines. They have to grab you emotionally; sum up the whole book, really.

    Thank you, Kathryn Guare, for a great article. I enjoyed reading it!

    Warmest wishes to you,
    Joyce (J.A. Schneider)

  9. gabrielle bergan October 31, 2013 at 3:18 pm #

    Thanks for your article Kathryn. I like your first line. It conjures up all sorts of images in my mind. It makes me want to know more.

    I’ve just finished my first book, a memoir called Return to My Soul. My first line is ‘My mother had a dream.’

    I hope people will be curious:)

    All the very best with your book!!

    Gabrielle:)

    • Kathryn Guare October 31, 2013 at 6:02 pm #

      I think it’s a good one – it certainly makes me curious!
      Thanks for the good wishes, Gabrielle, and all the best for you and yours as well.

  10. Stepheny Houghtlin October 31, 2013 at 2:47 pm #

    I’m delighted to meet Kathryn Guare through this blog, and therefore, introduced to a new mystery! First lines are a writers game, indicating if nothing else, how well read we must be to write. Kathryn’s conclusion works for me. In the scheme of things, first lines are important, but the following work must measure up too. I am going to put Kathryn’s tittle in my queue on Kindle Fire. Looking forward to a good read I hope.

    • Kathryn Guare October 31, 2013 at 6:00 pm #

      Thank you Stepheny! Of course I hope you’ll enjoy it, but either way I’d love to have your feedback when you’ve finished, so please stay in touch!

  11. Peter Prasad October 31, 2013 at 2:41 pm #

    I love first lines. They set the tone, offer a promise and give a taste. But they are only memorable if the entire read is delightful. In my experience, first lines are best written last, after all the kinks and plot twists are worked out. My favorite:

    Jake heard a sad goat cry as he woke from his last nap in Redwoods hospital.
    (from Sonoma Knight: The Goat-Ripper Case)

    • Kathryn Guare October 31, 2013 at 5:58 pm #

      I think you may be right, Peter. Writing it last gives you a chance to reconsider and really try to pack a wallop, but I guess there’s also the danger that by focusing on it too much, you risk having it come off as overly contrived.

  12. Dan Holloway October 31, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

    Having just won a first lines competition with Harper Collins, this is a subject after my own heart – can we next have a post on how to make the next 5000 sentences just as good!

    I have two absolute favourites, both of them very unoriginal.
    “Call me Ishmael” has always struck me as perfect in every way, and surely will never be beaten for cramming layer on layer on layer of meaning into just 3 words.
    “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles” does the same thing – in one sentence it compresses a whole book of social criticism on the Reagan era.

    For me, the key is tapping into universal questions but doing so with a specificity that says “stop here, you have to read *this* story and nothing else right now” – the lack of specificity is what makes the Nesbo and Robb lines in the article so dreadful. Personally, I don’t think the others on the list are so bad, though not stunning.

  13. Orna Ross October 31, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

    My favourite is Master Catcher, Holden Caulfield: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” The whole book is there already: the intimate first-person buttonholing, the US teen-slangster voice, the apathy that hides the hurt. Genius!

    • David James October 31, 2013 at 1:43 pm #

      Not all opening lines are memorable and those that are, such as those of Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina, are, in retrospect, not so great as all that. Jane Austen’s is witty but has become cliche and too much imitated; Tolstoy’s is sheer bunkum and has little to do with the reality of the novel or the reality outside it.

      To spend time agonising over a first line seems to me to encourage unnecessary neurosis; there’s enough neurosis to follow with plot, character, point of view, tone and all the rest of the confection one needs to present to a reader.

      I can’t really recall more than a couple of firsr lines from the thousands of novels I’ve consumed in a long life, and I doubt if the authors, if still alive, could either. However, with help and after checking these are two of my favourites: ‘Longtemps, je me suis couche de bonne heure’ and ‘Although I am an old man, night is generally my time for walking.’

      I can’t say that either of these first lines would be likely to attract the attention of a publisher these days, but to me at least they are, for some reason I can’t fathom, memorable.

      • Theo Rogers October 31, 2013 at 2:14 pm #

        Thank you, David.

        I was beginning to wonder if I was alone in thinking that it’s better if you _don’t_ think about it.

        As the delightful people at Nike are so fond of saying “Just do it”.

      • Kathryn Guare October 31, 2013 at 5:55 pm #

        Neurosis. Yes, that was the word I was looking for – thank you!

        • Theo Rogers November 2, 2013 at 8:41 am #

          If I may, perhaps present a kinder, gentler Theo, there are some great first lines. The one that always sticks in my head the most is the opening line to Neuromancer: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”. It’s not just great on its own: it paves the way masterfully for the road ahead.

          But I still think you’re over-thinking this. These things are most inclined to make their way into consciousness when we don’t try too hard.

          And if you absolutely must strive for that genius first line, for Heaven’s sake write the book first, then worry about such things!

  14. Lillian Avon October 31, 2013 at 10:59 am #

    My favourite one liners and the best in my opinion are from Toni Morrison’s novels:

    “They shoot the white girl first” – Paradise

    “Here is the house” – The Bluest Eye

    • Kathryn Guare October 31, 2013 at 5:53 pm #

      Lillian, the first one literally sent a chill through me. For the second one, I’m curious, because that one doesn’t stand on its own for me. Do you love it because of your experience with the book, or the author, or because of the next line or paragraph following the first sentence?

  15. Ann Simpson October 31, 2013 at 10:56 am #

    Nice to meet you Kathryn. I also like great first lines and first pages. As an author if I get it right it will attract readers. In my recently published book I started with the line, “Why didn’t you turn the light on in there? It’s a paranormal mystery. I decided to make it a series, each book under 200 pages. The next work in progress, I started with, “A moment ago the room looked normal.” Love your first page! I like to find great first pages and post on my blog. I will add yours today.

    Ann Simpson

    • Kathryn Guare October 31, 2013 at 5:50 pm #

      Thank you so much, Ann! Your paranormal first line makes me think of another one I came across, even though it’s not a paranormal mystery: “When the lights went off, the accompanist kissed her.” That’s from Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. What’s the name of yoru book?

  16. Alastair Batchelor October 31, 2013 at 10:42 am #

    Sorry, that should have been post, not poet

  17. Alastair Batchelor October 31, 2013 at 10:39 am #

    Hi Kathryn,
    perhaps we could also consider that the first line we write is as important to the author as it is to the reader. For me it is the focus which I build my story around.

    Mankind is teetering, perched precariously on the edge of a precipice; he is
    destroying his own destiny and as even greater numbers swell the throng behind, yet more must plunge to their inevitable extinction. From a Leaf That Floats Upstream. Book 1 of the Leaf Series
    There is a tree in a forest of trees, not far from where you are. From a Leaf on a Quest. Book 2 of the Leaf Series, should be published in the next couple of weeks on Smashwords.
    These are two of my first lines so you can take your pick. But when considering the importance of first lines I believe that you have to also include the importance of last lines/sentences of chapters and of the book. Have you provided a hook, at least enough to prompt your reader to start into the next?
    Just a thought, I hope I have not complicated the issue, but I did really enjoy your poet and it has made me look again at my openings, Thank you.

    • Kathryn Guare October 31, 2013 at 5:45 pm #

      Yes, I’ve been agonizing over the last line as well. Thought I was done, but I just had one of my beta readers remark that she didn’t get it, so I’m giving it another long think. Of your first two lines, Alastair, I like the second best, because it has a rather confiding, fairy-tale feel that makes me settle in and prepare myself to be told a story.

  18. Althea October 31, 2013 at 10:27 am #

    Great post. How about we all tell each other our first lines, and get some feedback here?

    I liked your first line, as it
    suggests a back story to the events that are about to take place in the house,

    Here is mine (historical, 3rd century Roman Britain)

    “The winter sun was rising above Isca, City of the Legions.”

    How does that sound?

    Althea

    • Orna Ross October 31, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

      I like it but I’d love a person in there.

    • Stepheny Houghtlin October 31, 2013 at 2:31 pm #

      Setting is important to me when I read or write. I like your first line! It isn’t only the first line, but first chapter that holds me hostage. I know they say, “Wait until the novel is finished to rewrite the beginning,”, but as I write along, unless things are RIGHT along the way, I can’t move ahead. Your first line intrigues me; a destination I am now headed for.

    • Kathryn Guare October 31, 2013 at 5:35 pm #

      This sounds intriguing to me. If it was “The winter sun was rising above New York City” it would be sort of mundane, but the place is one I don’t know, and the tagline “City of the Legions” makes it more mysterious, so I want to know more. I think it might be even stronger if it had one more thought at the end, either something introducing a person as Orna suggested, or maybe suggesting an added sense of drama.

  19. JJ Toner October 31, 2013 at 10:26 am #

    It does help to come up with a killer first line, like the cherry on top of a cake. But cakes without cherries can be good eating too!

  20. Catherine October 31, 2013 at 10:09 am #

    I’m so glad you’ve written this post! I think the first sentence is the charge that sets off a work, especially a short story where every second counts. I suggested this once at my one and only writing class, and was overwhelmed by other hands up saying Plot! Character! I disagree. In fact my favourite short story writers all say that it is language that sets them off, keeps them faithful to the energy of the piece. Yesterday I read that George Saunders says anytime a theme pops into his head – he runs the other way. And Grace Paley has famously rubbished plot and talked about her stories as though they were two sticks rubbed together!

    My fav first sentence of mine of late:
    ‘Ernesto said if they ever did it again they were going to stuff the dog.’
    from ‘Taxidermy’ in ‘Pelt and Other Stories’

    Great post!

    • Kathryn Guare October 31, 2013 at 5:25 pm #

      Catherine, I also love it when I get drawn in by the language of a piece. I know many editors will say they want to be carried along by the story and not “notice” the writing, but I think sometimes if the writing is brilliant, you just want to pause and re-read and marvel at the talent. I recently read Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series. At some points, I would think there were far too many similes (sometimes 3 in one sentence), but then I would read them over and find that each was a jewel and I couldn’t imagine taking any of them out.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Why Authors Must Have a First Line That Grabs the Reader - San Francisco Book Review - June 8, 2017

    […] Kathryn Guare, self-publishing author, shared her insight and said, “The first sentence of a novel is exactly that—nothing more, and nothing less. It is the building block and the foundation from which to build everything else. It needs to work, but it does not need to be a work of art onto itself. If you like it yourself, then stop obsessing over it.” […]

  2. Why Authors Must Have a First Line That Grabs the Reader  - City Book Review - June 8, 2017

    […] Kathryn Guare, self-publishing author, shared her insight and said, “The first sentence of a novel is exactly that—nothing more, and nothing less. It is the building block and the foundation from which to build everything else. It needs to work, but it does not need to be a work of art onto itself. If you like it yourself, then stop obsessing over it.” […]

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