Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Opening lines: location and movement

At the suggestion of the commenters over on Captain Awkward, perhaps my favorite advice blog in existence, I'm starting a loose series of writing advice and commentary posts. Fun though it is for me to vent my spleen about whatever book has bothered me most recently in the book-by-book reviews, I tend to find myself drifting into "it could have been better if X" anyway. Feel free to drop in comments or suggestions about what you'd like to see me cover next-- most examples that I'll be using will come from reviews I've written, so these posts may grow over time as I find more examples.

This week, let's take a look at opening sentences-- these are important because of both the way they influence a reader's decision about whether to continue and the way readers are so often (though not always) right about the way the quality of a first sentence gauges the strengths of the whole book. There's not a wrong way to do this, per se, but a good opening line is simultaneously a gateway to the rest and a microcosm of the work as a whole, establishing early hints about tension or mood or style. You can accomplish that in any number of ways: building the setting, dropping the reader into the character's head directly, establishing a threat, opening with dialogue, using a short sentence that demands a follow-up, or grabbing for something altogether stranger. This time we open on some of the most reliable types: building the physical setting and focusing on a character's external movements.

Details and setting:

Some writers go for a detail-heavy opening sentence: this style is often long and tends to include setting or proper character names. The goal here is to root the reader quickly in the world and its concrete details, to make this place somewhere that you want to stay.

Flat: It was an unusually warm mid-September day in Boston. (from A Kiss Before the Apocalypse)

We're in Boston and discussing the weather. Words cannot express how uninteresting it is to be told about the weather unless we're hearing about something like the sighting of the first snowflake on the plains of hell or a rain of frogs-- weather as symbolism can also work, but it's often heavy-handed. It's easy to picture this day, but why would you bother?

Flat: Azoth squatted in the alley, cold mud squishing through his bare toes. (from The Way of Shadows)

The sensory detail of cold mud is good, establishing a clear picture of discomfort, but there's not much else going on here. It's the sort of opening that you can take or leave-- not bad, but also not memorable. 

Good: The assassin left the stronghold of Mein Tahalian by the great front gate, riding through a crack in the armored pine beams just wide enough to let him slip out. (from Acacia)

This is solid enough and engages a few questions: is this assassin going out on a mission or leaving after its completion? Who is dead, or about to be? We can picture the gate, at least a little, and that gives a loose sense of the world's technology level.

Good: I wheeled my bike down Decatur Street and eased deeper into the French Quarter, the bike's engine purring. (from Skinwalker)

We already know where we are: this character is in New Orleans. But more than that, we know that she isn't in too much of a hurry. It's a leisurely enough ride, with this person easing along and the engine purring, creating a picture of someone who is enjoying the day and the journey.

Better: Rik Maliani stepped out of nothingness into the narrow cobbled confines of Troker's Lane, overhung on each side by ancient half-timbered houses...and as his second step went squish, he realized he'd just put his left foot down right into the middle of a turd. (from Omnitopia Dawn)

This is a little longer but makes good use of that space. Rik is stepping out of nothingness-- by magic, maybe through a portal? He's establishing a quick view of the scene, sketching in a narrow street that's old and battered, maybe a little menacing, not a bad spot for an adventure. From those notes, which set up that sense of age and mystery and potentially magic, we sink down to the very mundane detail of a turd and the sensory engagement-- even if unpleasant-- that it implies. The contrast is a bit funny, enough for at least a quick grin, and there's more of a tug to keep reading.

There's no "best" here because, in my opinion, it's quite hard to get this style of opening to excellent. In trying to establish the concrete details of the setting first, it's easy to sacrifice what the experience of that setting is like, or the how the character ticks, or what sort of clever reader-awareness the author might demonstrate later. You probably can't get every piece of that into one sentence without some clunky three-paragraph nightmare of a sentence, but straight-up "this thing happened in a place" beginnings tend to be underwhelming unless that place is, say, the heart of a star, or right next to a tornado. If the sense of place isn't immediately captivating but is also where the story needs to begin, it's important to also use that moment to establish some other element of mood or tension.

Physical movement: 

This does overlap to an extent with the previous category, but there the focus is on immediate movement, not the setting of that movement. It's not uncommon for writers to start a story with a character's literal movement in space in an attempt to create the first impression of a dynamic character, one who is busy Doing Things that will doubtless be fascinating. Even if the movement is small, like a single step or a physical reaction, this can be a good impulse: the reader should want to know where that character is going next.

Serviceable: Ellen Tarnowski pulled over to the side of the road and turned off the engine; utter silence fell, save for the pinging sounds of hot metal contracting. (from A Taint in the Blood)

This isn't bad, but it's the kind of sentence that might work better a little later in the book, even a few paragraphs on. There are good sensory details here, but you need to pause for a moment to appreciate the sudden silence punctuated by the sound of metal, and a first sentence doesn't (normally) benefit from a pause when there could be motion. You can stretch and say that the silence conveys a tense mood of some sort, but it doesn't quite work.

Good: Auraya stepped over a fallen log, taking care that no crinkle of crushed leaves or snapping of twigs betrayed her presence. (from Priestess of the White)

We know that this person is in the forest, probably in some sort of warm season; more importantly, she's being quiet and stealthy, trying to hide the fact that she's there. Is she in danger? From whom is she trying to hide? Is she instead a pursuer or huntress of some sort? That one step raises questions about her reasons for moving softly, which is a soild reason to move to the next sentence.

Better: Though he was filthy from head to toe, bloodied, and his skin shredded as thoroughly as a cat's scratching post, Omad couldn't suppress a grin. (from The Unincorporated Man)

The movement here is small, just a twitch of the facial muscles, but it's a movement surrounded by injuries that ought to make Omad anything but happy. Why is he smiling when he has all of those wounds? What on earth just happened to him? The physical smile is important-- you don't get quite the same sense of life from something like "couldn't suppress a feeling of joy."

Best: Well, thank God this is about to be over, I thought as I drove-- well, blew-- past the sign that marked the Westchester, Connecticut city limits. (from Ill Wind)

Like one of the previous quotes, the character is driving; here, however, she's blazing forward instead of stopping. We know where she is in space, which is nice, but the key factor here is in the way the character injects  opinions instead of flat facts. She's relieved at the near end of a problem, but the "well, blew" is the key factor here for me. She's aware of her own speeding and a little sheepish about it, packing a breezy-but-aware attitude into those two words in a way that "as I drove-- going twenty over" or "as I drove-- or sped" wouldn't quite achieve. It's clear the the author thought about how to phrase this and chose words that make you grin and empathize a little with this annoyed speed demon....who is talking in a way that's flawlessly in character with how she acts in the rest of the book.

We already see the shadow of the problem, the setting, and a brush of character attitude, all while the character is in physical motion. It's a busy sentence, with physical motion complemented by the active prose. I read this and went directly to the next sentence without pausing to even weigh if this one worked, and that effortless glide is the mark of a really good first line.

Next time, we'll look at openings of one character talking to another or the character talking directly to the reader/listener.


  1. Great examples; I'm really impressed by the collection of openers that are so close in substance and yet so varyingly successful.

    How about character-establishing openers, where the narrator talks to the reader about a character? They're tricky but they end up being some of my favorites when they go well.

    "Elmer Gantry was drunk."

    "Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress."

    1. Thank you! I think that the character-establishing style of opening sentence lends itself to a slower pace and can often come off as more dry/British, which of course isn't a bad thing. It does mean that more authors are going for some sort of slam-bang entry with immediate punch and action, and that's not bad either. If I find enough samples in the books I'm reviewing, though, I will absolutely put those into another opening lines post.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Really nice examples. This is certainly something most of us could do better.

    1. Thank you! I'll be writing more of these as well as going back to add examples to this post over the next few weeks. It's fun to tease out exactly why these work or don't, though applying it when I actually dip my toe back into novels with NaNoWriMo again...we'll see how that goes.

      Thanks for stopping by and following!