Sunday, December 8, 2013

Opening Lines

As a reader, the first line draws you into the story. A strong line will compel you to read on. For me as a writer, the opening is important as well. It’s my jumping off point, it’s the key that starts the engine running. A good opening line is a way into the story, a way to drive it forward.
I spend a lot of time on first lines. It’s important, of course, to get all the lines right, to write a tight and well told tale is the goal of any writer. It is essential, though, that a story have a strong beginning.
            Sometimes, the line comes along like a gift. I carry story ideas around in my head, often combined with an image or an opening scene. I won’t know quite how to begin and then the line comes fully formed and lets me into the story.  The opening of Sweet Lenora was like this. I had envisioned the story, at least the beginning of it. I knew the first scene would be Lenora at her father’s funeral. And so came the line- “On the day of my father’s funeral, the gray October sky opened and shed copious tears.” 
            Sometimes, the line comes from someone else. The idea for my short story trilogy, the Lilac Hour, came as I was watching a beautiful sunset in Maine. I had gone there to run a writing retreat. Friend and fellow writer Kathy Pyle remarked that she always thought of the time right around sunset as the lilac hour. The idea stuck and the first line of the story was born—“We called it the lilac hour.”
            Sometimes, lines get refined. P-Town Queen’s opener is perhaps one of my favorites. I wanted to start the story with a bang and a boom. So it began with a boat explosion. The original line was —“I did not blow up a boat called the Mona Lisa.” It led me into the story, but it wasn’t quite punchy enough. So I shortened it to “I did not blow up the Mona Lisa.”
            And sometimes, openers need to be changed all together. The original opening line of Searching for Superman was “Where was she going to find Cinderella on short notice?” I loved the line. But I had to do a whole lot of ‘walking backwards’ to keep it, writing in past perfect and making the opening scene less immediate than it needed to be. So, much as I might have loved it, it had to go.  I went with something that spoke to the central issue in the story—“If the perfect man existed, why did he keep eluding her?” Not as attention-grabbing, but it worked better overall.
            Blueberry Truth originally had three first person voices. And Blueberry, the little girl in the story, was the one who compelled me to write on. She ‘talked’ to me one day and this became the start-“My mama call me Blueberry because that what she like to eat when she have me.”  In the end, I needed to streamline the book to make it work and so I re-wrote it in single first person. Blueberry’s voice didn’t make the final cut, and I had to find a new way in. The opening scene became Beanie, the main character, waiting for husband Mac to come home for a romantic evening. “Johnny Mathis has sung “Chances Are” four times now, and chances are not awfully good that Mac will be home anytime soon.”
            I’m getting ready to write the fourth novella in the Anton and Lenora series at present. The book will be called “Willow” and I have a general idea of the plot line. The opening is still forming in my head. Something like,  “I first suspected on the day of the hanging.” Not quite right, but enough to get me into the story. I’ll probably go back and refine it later.
            Do you spend time on opening lines? What are some of your favorites?
Till next time


Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Opening lines may require more of your time, but you have titles down to a science.

Linda Rettstatt said...

I love the metaphor of an opening line being like the key that starts the engine. Without that spark, you're not going anywhere. Great post.

Ute Carbone said...

thanks Julie and Linda! It really is important to have a way into a story, isn't it?

Susan Roebuck said...

Oh the P-Town Queen! How I remember that first line (it should go down in history as one of the best) and the book was just as good. I do like stories that start with a bang and you do just fine (bang in the explosion sense, that is!)

Ute Carbone said...

Thank you Sue! You've brightened my Monday. :)

Big Mike said...

Couldn't agree more, Ute. Got to grab them immediately, but that same logic applies at the end of each chapter with a hook that MAKES you want to turn the page. Tough charge but its the hallmark of a great author.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

Ute Carbone said...

Very True, Mike. Don't give the reader any reason to put the book down. It's a challenge.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your very useful post, Ute. I haven't mastered the art of first line fully yet but I'm getting there.