My sophomore year of college, I read a Mona Simpson short story while sorting carbonized hearth remains from a thousand years ago. My eyes needed a break from my archaeological lab work (maize carbon starts to look just like dirt after awhile). The story was assigned by my Fiction II professor, who I, in the manner of art students everywhere, first despised for imposing rules, and then adored for imparting craft.
Simpson’s “Lawns” is about a young woman who works at the mailroom at her college. The opening line is “I steal”, and it’s brilliant. It introduces the protagonist and the overt tension. It draws the reader in and through the story: why does the protagonist steal? Why is she angry? It’s soon clear that this theme is tangled with the underlying issue of sexual abuse. This is what openings are supposed to do: introduce the readers to the tensions and the players of the story, and keep them reading.
Some first lines are so brilliantly crafted they stick in popular culture for years. “Call me Ishmael,” Melville’s protagonist invokes. “It is a truth universally acknowledged,” Jane Austen writes, to be quoted and misquoted for the next two hundred years and counting. These lines catch the attention of the reader; they are compelling, as are the lines that follow them. My own favorite first line comes from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. “Then there was the bad weather.” There we are, immediately in the scene. It is smelly and crowded and raining, and people are drunk in one of the millions of cafes on rue Mouffetard.
Years later, the same professor had us read Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. (“They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about difficulties was plainly impossible”). The professor told us that you should be able to finish a book, go back to beginning, and see all the threads of the novel laid out in the first few paragraphs. That’s some of the best writing advice I ever received. It’s sort of the grown up version of the five-paragraph essay, where each line of the introductory paragraph should indicated one of the following points.
It’s always been important to have good beginnings, but with the incredible amount of books now available, it’s even more crucial for authors to distinguish themselves with a strong beginning – especially for debut authors. Established writers have more trust from their readers, while debuts need to sell the book on the strength of their words alone. And they need to sell the book to agents and editors in the first place. To do so, they’ll often submit a query letter of about 250 words, and the first ten pages of their manuscript. If the agent is hooked, they’ll request more. If not – on the basis of maybe 5% of the total manuscript – a rejection is sent out.
I briefly interned at a literary agency, and it didn’t even take those full ten pages to decide whether we would request more. Part of the decision is subjective interest in the material and voice – so much of any art is subjective. But one very common reason that the first pages would be rejected was a lack of tightness. The pages would meander, describing a normal day without change, or they’d spend too much time on description, or linger on backstory.
Common writing advice suggests beginning with conflict, especially the conflict that changes the protagonist’s life forever. At my internship, I saw a large amount of manuscripts about women that started with her being sexually assaulted. Well, that’s high conflict, through another issue altogether. Many of the novels featuring male protagonists started with high stress interviews. In whatever case, it makes sense to begin where the character’s life alters, and when all the threads and tensions, external and internal, come into play and start to press on each other.
Out of curiosity and because anthropology is awesome, I thought I’d check out the first lines of the current bestselling books, and the most critically acclaimed novels of the past few years. Obviously both groups are doing something right; one batch is striking a cord in thousands of readers, while the other is gaining the laurels of the literary world.
Here are the first lines from the top ten novels of this week’s NYT Combined Print and eBook Fiction list:
Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks
I stand up and look down at the bed, holding my breath in fear of the sounds that are escalating from deep within my throat.
Hopeless by Colleen Hoover
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
The Coincidence of Callie and Kayden by Jessica Sorensen
Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
Fifty Shades Darker by E.L. James
Fifty Shades Freed by E.L. James
The Forgotten by David Baldacci
The Racketeer by John Grisham
Someone to Love by Addison Moore
A little background on these titles – three are self-published New Adult novels (Hopeless, The Coincidence of Callie and Kayden, Someone to Love). Three more are Fifty Shades, which are similar in that not much changed from their self-published fanfic form, and that they also deal with a college girl, and are written in first person. Interestingly, five of the above begin with prologues (the first Fifty Shades is the exception). The remaining four titles are one romance by an established, prolific writer (Safe Haven); two thrillers by established and prolific writers (The Forgotten; The Racketeer); and a critically acclaimed novel that could also be categorized as a thriller (Gone Girl).
Now a handful of 2011 and 2012 awards:
The Round House by Louise Erdrich, 2012 National Book Award
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Warn, 2012 National Book Award
Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, 2012 Man Booker Prize
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, 2011 Man Booker Prize
A Visit from the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan, 2011 Pulitzer for Fiction
If you’re interested in more critically acclaimed first lines, you can check out the internet, which Has Opinions.
(Look for one written in the last ten years!) (Don’t. The closest is 2002’s Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides).
Critically acclaimed novels aren’t, of course, always popular. An article from earlier this week, titled “National Book Awards to Diversify Judging Pool” points out that winning the National Book Award doesn’t really affect sales (unlike the British Man Booker Prize, which can bump sales dramatically). In fact, the article’s own first line reads: “Looking to broaden its appeal to the public and increase its impact on sales [The National Book Foundation] announced Tuesday that it would increase the number of finalists and diversify the judging pool.”
I find some first lines fantastic; some blasé; some merely an intro to a wonderful tale. While first lines are important, they aren’t going to make or break the novel alone. Still, they’re the first introduction of your work, your story, and your voice. I rarely put books down after one line, but I have after one page. I spent four years working in a bookstore, watching customers crack that spine, read for one minute, and then shelve it or kept it based on that and the cover copy. (And probably the cover). My grandmother told me she would open a book to the middle, read a paragraph, and if she liked it, take it.
(Personally, I based all my own teen-year purchases off whether a love interest was mentioned on the back cover, the first five pages, and whether everyone was alive in the last two. This really stunted my reading of books based on actual historical people. No matter how cool, because reading about a great love match and then realizing the woman died at 49 was depressing to my sixteen year old self. Also, have you heard about Abelard?)
Now, I usually give a book the ten percent that I can download free to my eReader. If I’m dying to find out what happens next, I click buy. Otherwise, I read more free samples. (It also depends how broke I’m feeling at any given moment). In any case, writers should be aware of how long they have to hook readers. One sentence? One page?
I’ve often thought that short stories are like poetry – the writer must be economical in her word choice, using each word with intention, whereas a novelist has more flexibility. Even so, that flexibility isn’t for the beginning. In the beginning, each sentence should as be as tightly crafted as a poem.
One caveat there, of course: one complaint I’ve heard repeated from angry readers is that they fall in love with a story during the tightly woven first half, and then everything goes to hell. Don’t do that, guys.
Unless you’re Dante.