Friday, July 05, 2013

Writing Tips: Opening Lines

A few posts back, I talked about prologues. One thing I didn't mention about prologues and should have is that they're often big piles of telling the reader background stuff. Snooze city.

Even if you have a prologue, you will need to make your opening page exciting enough to make the reader turn the page or punch the Page Forward button on their e-reader. In the case of presentation on e-readers, you don't even have a traditional length first page. A half page, maybe. With my larger font use, you've barely got a middle-sized paragraph to grab me.

As the world moves faster, so must your magnum opus. Less on the magnum and more on the opus.

Here's my favorite first sentence of all time. Three little words:

"Call me Ishmael."

Melville grabbed the reader in three short words, one of them a name. Maybe not as pop musical as "Call Me Maybe," but I'm not quite sure who Maybe is. Of course, I don't know Ishmael yet either, but his name alone gives me a lot of information. To the original audience in 1851, the name was immediately recognizable. With few books around, and stern parents, even kids had read the Bible from cover to cover. If for nothing else than the Song of Solomon (how about those two breasts like two young roes?). Yup, the Bible was the book hidden under the bed like a stack of Playboys with certain pages worn and smudged with ... well, very well worn.

So, who is Ishmael and why did Melville decide to use the name for his main character? I'll make this brief, since we're talking about opening pages, not literary or Biblical history.

Ishmael was a bastard born to Abraham and his wife's maid servant Hagar. An angel informed Hagar that Ishmael would be a wild man, and he'd hate everybody and they'd hate him right back. Abraham sent Hagar and her son away when Sarah, his wife (at 90 years old!), got pregnant. You can read all the soap opera details in Genesis around about chapter 16-20. It's also got all that smutty stuff about Sodom and Gomorrah too.

Ishmael, then, was an outcast from the favored tribe of Abraham which is the lineage of all the holy folks in all three major religions based on a unitary god.

The readers in the 1850s immediately recognized Melville's main character as an outcast and a wanderer. Indeed, Ishmael continues, "Some years ago--never mind how long precisely--having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world."

No explosions, car crashes, sword battles, or any other action. Just a disaffected young man at odds with his life who decides to try working on a ship. However, I'm hooked, lined, and sinkered. I was when I was twelve, and I am now re-reading that opening and want to read it again. Yay, for Amazon's free Kindle books!

Okay, I've completely lost my thread now because I want to go snuggle on the couch and see what happens to Ishmael next.

I would like you to write a comment with the best opening sentence you can recall. It can even be one of your own books. That's a dare. Make me want to read your book with one smashing opening sentence.

Here's my opening line for one of the Witches of Galdorheim books, Scotch Broom. Not as pithy as Melville, but the reader (hopefully you) does learn a lot about the main character in a single sentence.

* * *
Kat lay on her stomach, elbows bent, hands propping up her chin as she read 101 Spells for Household Maintenance.
* * *


SCOTCH BROOM: Book 3 of The Witches of Galdorheim

A magical trip to Stonehenge lands a witch in the Otherworld where an ancient goddess is up to no good.

Kat expects to have a great time on her graduation trip to Stonehenge. However, from the moment she leaves the witches’ arctic island, Galdorheim, she gets in nothing but trouble.  Her younger half-brother tries to horn in on her trip, she gets lost in the magical Otherworld realm, is led astray by a supposed friend, then she has to confront a Scottish goddess who’s fallen on hard times.


While dodging the goddess’ minions and trying to find her way out of the Otherworld, Kat soon learns she shouldn’t underestimate the old has-been for one second; the crone still has a few tricks that can drain a witch’s magic in a flash. To make matters worse, Kat's brother secretly followed her into the Otherworld. Now he’s in danger too.  Kat has to go one on one with the goddess to save herself and her brother.