“It was a dark and stormy night -- ” Not!
In the nearly 200 years since Edward George Bulwer-Lytton penned that infamous opening line, which led iconic (and laconic) author Elmore Leonard to offer his own dictum: Never open with weather, writers have been left to wonder, how, exactly, should we introduce our stories? As a longtime member of writing critique groups, I’ve seen so many bad openings for stories (and written some myself), I marked author J.C. Davis’s class at the 2017 DFW Writers Conference “Crafting Fabulous First Lines” as a must-attend.
Davis offered more positive help – The Blind Date Theory of First Lines.
Why “blind date”? Because, she told the audience (with apologies to indie authors) “Because, with the cover and back copy normally created by someone else, (the opening line) is the only the first impression you can control.”
Oh, blind dates. In case we didn’t need any more pressure about what to key in first on that blank computer page. But once breathing and heart rate return to normal, we start to think about what we do (or would do) in such a situation. We make sure we’re clean, neat, and dressed in a way that makes us feel comfortable about appearing in public. It doesn’t mean we can’t show our personality. In fact, we want to show personality. We just don’t wear clown suits.
So, here’s Davis’s list of what a story’s first line needs to do:
· Establish voice (either the author’s or a character’s)
· Introduce a character
· Introduce a setting
· Ask a question
(Deep breaths again. The first line doesn’t need to accomplish all of those things, only one. Two or more or even better, but trying to do all four can become the “first date” equivalent of showing up in a tuxedo with a dozen red roses. And maybe a ring. Too much, too soon.)
Davis’s first possibility includes the sometimes dreaded, often discussed issue of “voice.” It’s not that hard, really, if like many writers, we hear snippets of dialogue in our heads. How do the characters speak and think? What do they value? That’s the filter through which they perceive emotions.
Whether we choose to open with a character’s voice or a more omniscient “authorial voice” (often used for mystery, thriller, and horror writing), we make the same choices, helped by sentence structure, word choice, even paragraph breaks.
To introduce a character, consider the same issues as for “voice,” as well as whether to open with the main character, or another one who will still merit having his/her own point of view, or even some other character, although one who must be important to the plot.
Using the opening lines to introduce the setting “grounds the reader in the locality, and is normally used if the setting is integral (to the story) or is an unusual one,” Davis said.
And that “posing a question” issue? “It’s not necessary to be a literal question, although it can be,” Davis told the audience, but “something that makes the reader curious.”
With so many opening possibilities to choose from, what does it take to become fabulous? The unusual, a sense of urgency, something that makes the reader care, and – voice.
The things that can make first lines go bad include clichés, excessive vagueness, beginning with dialogue. (Which she amended to “bad dialogue.) And a tone or voice that doesn’t match the rest of the narrative. “The first line, first paragraph, first page, must match tone and genre tropes – don’t lie to people.”
To find all this and more in a handy format, visit Davis’s “first lines” site.
Or for those who dare to craft truly awful lines, following the pen strokes of Mr. Bulwer-Lytton himself, try the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which proudly proclaims: "WWW means Wretched Writers Welcome."
(Tomorrow: keep story momentum through sequels, series, and spin-offs, with author/editor Laura Maisano's tips.)