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April 2017

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Opening lines

Opening lines. Writers obsess over them, redraft them, searching for that perfect combination of introduction, hook, and stage-setting. I've analyzed eight openers from YA novels, below.

It hit me when I was power walking on the treadmill at home, watching a Friends rerun for about the ninetieth time.
--Randa Abdel-Fattah, Does My Head Look Big in This?
We don't know what hit her, but something did. Something is about to change in this character's life. And since she's watching old reruns repeatedly, it sounds like she needs a change. The tone in this sentence is closer than comedic to tragic.

It is my first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache.
--Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak
Firsts and beginnings are a great place to start. And already this character has trouble. She is not rushing into high school with joy and anticipation. Is it just first-day jitters, or something more significant? We're about to find out.

I raise my mini golf club and try to focus on the clown's chomping mouth. Other lips are on my mind, though--Bryan's, to be honest.
--Lauren Bjorkman, My Invented Life
Nothing wrong with romance! And there's humor, too, with the "clown's chomping mouth," especially juxtaposed with some (presumably) hot guy's mouth.

The third time I tried to kill myself I used a rope.
--Albert Borris, Crash Into Me
This is a classic lay-it-on-the-table opening. We know exactly what this book is going to be about: suicide.

Maybe it's just a scratch. Willow Randall stares at the girl seated opposite her.
--Julia Hoban, Willow
Here's a more subtle opening, starting with a small mystery. A girl is curious about a small detail, an injury. We are being eased into a story in which the details will prove significant.

Leah Greene is dead. Before my mother even answers the ringing telephone downstairs, I know.
--Jo Knowles, Lessons from a Dead Girl
Another high-impact opening, with the second line introducing a mystery: how does the narrator know?

There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.
--Louis Sachar, Holes
Another opening with a slower build. But right away, we get the sense of absurdity, paradox, and puzzlement that characterizes the whole book.

"There are places you can go," Ariana tells him, "and a guy as smart as you has a decent chance of surviving to eighteen."
--Neal Shusterman, Unwind
I sometimes hear people say you can't start a book with dialogue, and I don't know where that advice came from, but I disagree. Of course you can, and Shusterman does. This opener tells us someone is looking to escape from something--and it's a matter of survival. So we have conflict, mystery, and high stakes right away.

Some of these openers plunk us right in the middle of conflict, while others hint at it more subtly. Most of them provoke questions. All of them introduce us to the narrator's voice, and to the book's tone. The beginning can be fast or slow, loud or quiet. Mostly, the first sentence just needs to make us read the next sentence. (Which needs to make us read the next ...)

Comments

I typically find my opening lines somewhere around page three of my earliest drafts. I take these running starts that do a lot of nothing but set things up in my own brain.
Yes, where we start our draft is not necessarily where we need to start the book.
Opening lines are tricky. But it seems I see a lot of books with nothing special first lines, but very good first pages.
I'd say the writer usually has at least a paragraph to spark some interest, especially if the title or jacket has already roused some enthusiasm.
These are wonderful openers, of course, but I also like that you've footnoted each of them. It's fun to think about how and why they work so well!
I was thinking: "What does a first line really need to do?" And I figured there's no better teacher than example!
We've come a long way from "Once upon a time . . ."
Taking note of the first line from a fistful of books is a useful exercise.
Once upon a time was a convenient universal opener--but then the storyteller had to worry about the second and third lines!
I try to think about where the key action happens in my story, and then start at the tipping point. I use to think I needed to "set the scene" first, but eventually realized that as a reader I like the setting to be revealed as the story moves along. It's not usually the place that intrigues me, but the plot. Some of your examples hint at the setting but primarily pull me right into what's happening, so yes, I definitely agree the importance of a first sentence, a first paragraph, a first page, is to keep us wanting to read more.
I do think people like to meet the character(s) as soon as possible.

First Lines

omigod. a fellow first line blogger! I've been doing a lot of that and I have learned so much in my quest for excellent first lines (and/or first paragraphs.) I blogged Laurie's first line in 2009 or 2010. I do a lot of these posts. Thanks for the lines I didn't know.

Re: First Lines

I've only analyzed first lines a couple of times, but I agree, it's helpful to see a group of them together and analyze what they have in common. (And to see the variety that's possible.)
Your first six selections are in first person. I'm not sure if the other two are, but they could be. Any chance of analyzing some 3rd person openings?
True! I guess I've betrayed the bias on my bookshelves: since I as a reader lean toward first person, I simply have more examples of it at hand.

The last two are indeed from third-person books. But I will see if I can dig up more--I've added your suggestion to the running list I keep of possible blog topics!

(Anonymous)

my favorite

"The first time i saw Billy he was walking out of a cloud."

ANYTHING FOR BILLY, Larry McMurtry

Re: my favorite

Oooh, good one. We have mystery as well as change in the offing.