Genesis of a Novel – Opening Lines – Part V

You only have one chance to make a great first impression. That is true of novels as well as meeting people.
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Fascinating that ‘opening lines’ isn’t until Part V, isn’t it?
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But yes, in my process, there is a lot of work that needs to be done before I can allow myself the torture and luxury that is crafting the opening lines of a novel. There are other methods, of course, but this is my method.
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Opening lines are incredibly important. They are the hook that draw your reader into the world you have created. Get them wrong and you lose them. Get them almost right, and you will still lose many. Get them right and you have pure gold.
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Many people (all?) are frightened, intimidated and purely terrified by the opening scene. For many, it’s what keeps them from writing their book. They are paralyzed with fear over screwing up this important part. Don’t let that happen! If need be, start at scene 2. Or write a placeholder scene and come back to it. Do whatever trick you can to psych yourself out of paralytic fear and write.
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But what is right? Here are some rules I’ve learned. DO keep in mind that rules are meant to be broken. If done right, you can get away with breaking them all. But for most mortals, it is good to keep the following in mind.
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  • Start with something happening. This doesn’t have to be ninja-attacking action – it can be an argument. Something with conflict and tension. You don’t want the trite opening of someone contemplating their boring life and ready for some change, or a character waking up and looking into a mirror so you can describe them. Catch them with some action. It doesn’t have to be world-disaster action – it could be something as simple as a phone call or overhearing a co-worker gossip about you. Still, the first scene should have something interesting/exciting going on to draw the reader in.
  • On the other hand, don’t start in the middle of OO much action. You don’t want to confuse the poor reader before you give them a chance to care for your characters.
  • Name your character quickly. I would suggest the first three lines. It doesn’t have to be his full title and associations. You don’t have to mention his name is King Ruaidrí mac Con Ulad Mac Duinn Sléibe.  You could just say King Ruaidrí, or simply the King. But give the character a name, perhaps a bit of his personality, right away. Don’t keep him as a nebulous blob. Not naming him is distancing, and the reader doesn’t connect with them.
  • This is particularly true if you have dialogue as your opening line. Tell us who is talking right away! Too many unreferred pronouns can easily confuse. It’s perfectly clear in YOUR mind’s eye, but new readers are a blank slate.
  •  Avoid long exposition or scenery (data dump). Exposition is lovely, It’s needful, but in small doses. The opening scene of a book is especially vulnerable to such things. One line at a time, interspersed in the action or dialogue, is much more palatable. Yes, I know you want to open the door into your lush and imaginative world. Baby steps!
  • IF you decide to start with a bit of philosophy, make sure it segues into your story nicely and fairly quickly. Many classic novels start out this way, and that’s wonderful. See below for some examples. But that is no longer the ‘popular style’ so if you are going to try to make that work, make sure it’s flawless.
  • Match your sentence length to the action. If there is a fire, use short, choppy sentences to increase tension and immediacy. If the action is a gate crasher at a Victorian tea party, you can use longer sentences to match the more relaxed setting.
  • It’s tempting to be mysterious and flowery in the opening lines. If this is epic fantasy, even more so. But TOO much mystery can be off-putting as well. Each ‘unknown’ is stored in a reader’s brain as something to discover. There are only so many unknowns a reader is willing to hold onto until he is bored and tosses the book at the wall.
  • Even if you are looser with your other scenes, make sure the opening scene has definite structure. Beginning, middle and closure. The purposes of any scene is to give essential information to the reader AND to make the reader want more. Ensure the opening scene does all that.
  • Try to only introduce 2-3 characters in the opening scene. Readers are just meeting these people – let the reader get to know them a little before bringing in another player.
  • On that note, make us care for the main character right away. Give us some details about her. Is she avoiding sweets because it will make her fat? Is he worried about the bosses new favorite employee taking over? Is he hung over because his girlfriend dumped him for his best friend?
  • “It was a Dark and Stormy Night”. Don’t start with the weather. It’s trite, overdone, and pretty boring. Unless your characters are about to be hit by a hurricane or a tsunami, of course.
  • Your opening scene may not be the right one when you’re done with your first draft. My first book I chopped off the first four chapters, and chapter five became chapter one.

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Yes, those are a lot of rules. And there are many others!

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There are several elements of an opening scene, including the inciting incident, a novel-sized problem, an immediate problem, a setup for the next scene. You might include SOME back story. You introduce several elements, such as the theme, the language, the setting/time, and maybe even hint at issues in the rest of the novel. It’s a tall order.
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The above seems crippling and scary. There is SO much to remember, and so much is riding on these opening lines. So how do I start?
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I start with a movie in my mind. I pick a scene out I know is going to be in the book. For instance, my new novel, Misfortune of Vision, is set in 12th century Ireland. I know that the main character – a 65-year old prophetess, employed by her king – is going to clash with the new Bishop. So I have tentatively decided that the opening scene is of her walking by the king’s chambers and overhearing the Bishop discuss her.
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This is what I’ve got for now.

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January 5th, 1177AD

Dún Dá Leathghlas (Downpatrick), Ulster, Ireland

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          “She’s a witch, Rí Ulad.”

           Orla stopped dead in her tracks. She wasn’t in the habit of listening to the King’s conversations, but the stranger must be speaking of her. The fact that the speaker used the formal title of King of the Ulaidh meant he was someone important. She hadn’t learned how to survive in this wicked world by ignoring potential threats. She pressed her ear against the solid oak door. A rustle in the thatch above her distracted her, but it was only a rat come in from the cold.

 

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So I’ve got the main character named, the speaker at least described as a stranger to her, and her voice hinted at. She is a strong woman and she knows how to survive. I’ve established she has some relation to the King, and that she is in a structure with a thatched roof and an oak door. Since I’ve named the date and the town beforehand, that helps fill in the details of setting.
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Now I go into the conversation she overhears between the king and the stranger (the Bishop who hates her) and set up the conflict. It is very likely this will all change, but for now, I’ve only written the first 1900 words of the novel, so this is a placeholder until I finish the first draft or have a brilliant idea before then.
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Keep this in mind: You will rewrite your first scene. Many times. You will rewrite your first couple of lines. Many times. Maybe five times, maybe fifty times.  Just deal with that. Understand it from the beginning. DON’T let the above frighten you. Get something down to start with and know you will come back to it, and you can edit later to your heart’s content.
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Here are some examples of first lines from classic books that have stood the test of time. Keep in mind some of these break the above rules! While some start with conflict, for instance (Fahrenheit 451, Orlando or The Stranger), many do not.
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  • “Call me Ishmael” – Moby Dick
  • “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” – One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – Anna Karenina
  • “It was a pleasure to burn.” – Fahrenheit 451
  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” – A Tale of Two Cities
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Pride and Prejudice
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – 1984
  • “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” – The Trial
  • “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth” – The Catcher in the Rye
  • “It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.” – City of Glass
  • “Mother died today” – The Stranger
  • “Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.” – The Debut
  • “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” – The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  • “He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.” – Orlando
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Whatever you choose for your opening scene, keep in mind you can go back and change it. Again and again and again, if necessary. Don’t let it keep you from writing the rest of the book. Make the opening scene just scene one, and know that you will come back and make it wonderful another day.  Once the whole book is written, you’ll have a much better sense of the book and what the opening lines should best be.
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More parts:

 

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I write historical fantasy novels, mostly set in Ireland, and a contemporary romance based on my parents’ 30-year search for true love. Don’t miss information on Celtic myth and history, as well as practical travel planning tips, and hidden places, in my travel books.
– Better To Have Loved – Contemporary romance based on the true story of my parents’ 30-year search for love
– Legacy of Hunger – Historical fantasy set in 1846 Ireland
– Legacy of Truth – Historical fantasy set around 1800 Ireland. Prequel to Legacy of Hunger. Available now!
– Legacy of Luck – Historical fantasy set in 1745 Ireland and Scotland. Prequel to Legacy of Truth, tentative release date January, 2017!
– Stunning, Strange and Secret: A Guide to Hidden Scotland
– Mythical, Magical, Mystical: A Guide to Hidden Ireland
More info at Green Dragon Artist :: Home ,
Christy Jackson Nicholas, Author , and
Tirgearr Publishing – Christy Nicholas
Green Dragon Artist Blog
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I am an artist, accountant and author living in western New York, transplanted from Denmark, Michigan, Florida, West Virginia, Pennsylvania (in that order!) I love the beauty of the world and sharing it with others through jewelry, photography, digital painting and writing.

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14 comments on “Genesis of a Novel – Opening Lines – Part V
  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading these tips today, Christy! Much food for thought!

    Liked by 1 person

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