Sunday, November 02, 2008

Tone Those Lines

For me, the toughest line to write is always the first. It's the kickoff of the story; it sets the tone and needs to be timed just right. Most book store browsers read at least the first line, so it's an important selling tool.

Because the first line is the one that makes the approach and creates the first impression, it can be viewed as the writer's version of the pickup line. The wording is important, but so is the tone. I think that's why many first lines sound so artificial or cheesy; writers get nervous and overthink the words while forgetting how they come across, i.e.:

Timid: So, you're a girl, huh?

Arrogant: Well, here I am; what were your other two wishes?

Here's a simple exercise I give students to help them out with first lines that also practices tone. I'm going to use it and some bad examples (all of which are based on actual first lines I've read but that I've paraphrased or reworded.)

Imagine for a moment that you're in a coffee shop. A cute person you'd like to tell a story to is there sitting alone, sipping a vanilla latte and looking bored. You walk up and say:

"Isn't this weather we're having just totally riveting?"

Talking about the weather is safe. It's polite. It's picturesque. You can't get into a lot of trouble opening with the weather because it is what it is and we all know what it is. No one will send you a hate-mail that starts off "I found your description of that thunderstorm completely revolting." It's no wonder weather remains the number one pick-up line most used by writers in fiction.

To me, weather is boring. It's been done to death. It has no tone. Wallpaper has more tone. And I swear, every time I read any description of the weather as the first line, I see it morph into "It was a dark and stormy night" on the page. It's up to you, but I really think we need to move on now.

"Times sure have been the best and worst lately, huh?"

Aside from the weather, nothing delivers a first line more often than General Lization. He's that big, vague, blustery old soldier that writers send to lead their story into battle. He doesn't know where he's going, he can't tell you anything of value and often he doesn't have a clue as to what the war's about. But he's harmless, and he sounds good, and everybody likes him, or so writers think (actually he's a bumbler, he sounds patronizing and readers think he's cliche.)

Whenever you feel the urge to deploy the general -- Times sure have been the best and worst lately -- ask yourself: Why? The answer is the guy who should really be commanding your first line. Then do yourself a favor; retire the general, and send him to Florida. He's earned it.

"I know this guy who knows this girl who's married to this dude who works for this other guy who dates this woman who has a cousin with a son who knows this lawyer whose client is looking for someone who can date his daughter's adopted son's best friend -- which would be me -- and I thought that might interest you."

Characters are good things. We like them. In my opinion, the more, the merrier. But to a reader, the introduction of more than one or two important characters in the first line of the story is like you bringing your entire family to the coffee shop to help you hit on her. That really the tone you want to set for your possible relationship?

Keep in mind that most people have limited memories for information, and throwing a lot of names at them is not going to impress them or help them remember who they are. Leave the clan at home and avoid turning your first line into a character dump.

"Hey, there, big boy, how would you like to hear something naughty?"

The coy first line is very flirty in tone. It flutters its eyelashes at the reader. It flashes a little cleavage. It giggles. Does it do anything else? Well, it better.

Here's the deal: the flirtation line, done properly, can be intriguing. I know of maybe a handful of writers who can make that tone work like a charm. But if it's an empty tease, sounds ridiculous or doesn't do anything for reader, it's a waste of time. Do not waste the reader's time.

Some other brief observations on frequently-used first line tones:

"You're smarter than you look, right?"

Questioning the reader's intelligence in the first line works about as well as it does in person. Don't go there.

"No one will ever, ever understand my pain."

Nor will they want to hear about it, either, if that's your first line.

"I know a lot of big, pretty, useless words that I think will impress the hell out of you, wanna hear 'em?"

About as much as we want to watch you love yourself. Pass.

"Can I tell you the story of my life?"

No. Okay? Just: no.

Also, one other problem with first lines that regularly bedevils writers is that they get stuck on them. They write and rewrite and reword and write over and yet they're never satisfied and get caught in that whole reread-rewrite-reread loop. If you can't think of a decent opening line, or can't get past the one you've written, do yourself a favor -- write this sentence as your first line:

Until I think of something better, this is how it started.

It's a prod, too. Until you think of something better, that sentence will be your working first line. Leave it there as a place holder and continue writing.

Some of the first lines I've written most recently, and why I used them:

“Know what the three greatest pleasures in life are, buddy?”

Beginning a story with a line of dialogue is a bit tricky, and a lot of writers don't like to be that forward with the reader. I thought this one was fun, though, and it poses a question that everyone would answer differently but would want to know how other people would answer. It's also a line you'd hear one guy say to another in a bar, which is where this story opens.

Only Death is immortal.

I debated this one for a long time. I wanted a powerful first line for this particular opening, which was an ancient journal entry written by a character who is prone to making provocative statements. At the same time, I worried I'd gone and recalled the general. In the end I decided to use it because it is short, it sets the tone I wanted, and I doubt I'll ever pack that much truth or irony into a mere four words again.

Luce wanted to live up to her name tonight.

I apologize in advance to every Luce out there for this one, but when this line popped in my head I couldn't resist it. It's extremely rare that I have a first line come to me on its own, evidently out of nowhere, but when it does and it's good, I run with it.

What do you wrestle with when you're composing your first lines? Do you have a favorite first line of your own? Let us know in comments.


  1. Yeah, all those bad examples? Guilty. On all accounts. I am an especially heinous perpetrator of the flirty line. Here's an example:

    "The day that altered Evie's destiny and that would lead to her lying bloody and dying in a filthy alley a week later started ignobly enough with mutton sausages, cold Yorkshire pudding, and weak tea."

    Subtle as a two-by-four with a nail in it, right?

    Now I just use placeholders, because if I think about the opening line too much I don't get any of the bits that come after it written.

    As a side note, and you see this more in Fantasy than any other genre, is the opening line "In the beginning there was darkness". It's usually followed by several pages of worldbuilding. Personal pet peeve.

  2. I find I must guard against extremes. I'm either being too "cutesy", or sounding like the oracle at Delphi.
    At this point, I like something lyrical without being showy, or something plain-spoken that strikes a chord with me.
    My own favorite first line?
    "Men lie."

  3. I just try to begin as I mean to go on. What kind of story is it? The first line should reflect that. I don't think I have a favorite, but here's my current first line: "Kenric would have cursed when the demon he pursued evaded him, but in his wolf form he could only snarl."

  4. I got so hung up about my nano opening line (current word count: 244) that my friend got her bot to generate one for me. Oh, the shame!

  5. My current one, and I always hate them all is:

    "Oh, please hurry up." Gillie mumbled under her breath.

    But I think my favorite opening line of all time works because it's the entire story in one sentence and I wish it was mine.

    "Be kind to dragons, for thou art crunchy when roasted and taste good with ketchup."

    I was hooked on the story, and still am on the author.

  6. I've been very happy with my opening lines, and I really like the current one even though it's technically two sentences.

    Dubric Byerly, Castellan of Faldorrah, forced his arthritic hands to unclench and he tried to keep his voice level. "Your eye is bleeding."

    And, yeah, it sets the tone pretty darn well. :)

  7. Thought you might enjoy these, though they tend to be first paragraphs more than first lines:
    Top 10 Most Outrageous Opening Lines in Literature.

  8. Like Raine, I have to be careful that my first line doesn't end up at one extreme or the other. And I tend to obsess over my first line way too much. On the other hand if I'm happy with the title and the first line the rest of the book seems to go so much easier.

  9. My entire first chapter of my nano is like a nightmare. I wrote a note to myself at the end of the chapter that the rest of this book had better be an improvement or else...LOL. The silly threat made me relax (NaNo stress I think) and now I know I'll come back and make it better.

    Instead of a working first line I have a working first chapter. LOL.

  10. I almost always start a book with a line of dialogue. For some reason, I'm more comfortable doing that than anything else. It probably has something to do with the fact that I can never seem to come up with a snappy enough description or observation. Having the character say a quirky or whitty line is easier for me.

  11. Lynn, I love your analysis of first lines. Sometimes writers get so hung up on that one line that they fail to write the rest.

    I really liked your idea. I also think that challenges like NaNoWriMo is a good way to not agonize over the line that will probably be changed anyway.

    In fact, most first drafts are improved by throwing out the first one to three chapters.

  12. Anonymous5:28 PM

    I've got one story that still has it's placeholder, "Once upon a time there was a bookish girl names Ann-Marie." But it got me typing. :)

  13. I have to admit, I'm a "first line" writer. If I have a first line, the rest of it just falls in place. I rather like the first line of my current NaNovel. "In my long experience, I’ve found that there are two kinds of nerds: nerds who go to the Renaissance Faire alone, and those who go with someone else." I'm not really sure which tone that falls into, but it sure was a fun first scene to write.

  14. My first line, introducing two traders marooned on a very dirty spaceport, is this (roughly translated):

    "What we really need is a job. A good one." Christiaan said and went silent again.

    I'm definitly not a writer but I'd like to know how many clichés I can accumulate in one month. :-)

  15. LOL, Loved your first line examples.

    With one story I wrote fifteen first lines before good sense kicked in and I went with: character name & location (temp. fix until I come up with something better).

    Also, a previous post of yours on interesting author interviews inspired me to ask out-of-the-box questions to author Devon Monk, whose book MAGIC TO THE BONES hits shelves tomorrow. And she generously answered them. So for an interesting read on writing and publishing, check out


  16. I am not a writer. I am in awe as to how people can do it. But I absolutely love to read and am constantly going thru author's websites to see what's new, read excerpts, and find new books to buy. But when I'm at a store and find a book I haven't heard about, I never browse the first line. Probably because I don't want to get caught trying to read the first 5 chapters of the book in the store. My husband is not that patient. He would leave me & not come back for me. So I must be the strangest store browser ever!! It never even occurred to me to do that. I read the description on the back of the cover & decide then. But that probably doesn't say much considering if I actually picked it up, I almost always buy it. I love to read.

  17. This was a fabulous post.

    I actually really like the first line of my WIP and am trying to not second-guess myself.

    I'd learned a lot in my writing journey and also wonder how similar rules would apply to first pages or chapters.

  18. Argh, this post has made me rewrite one of my openings. Again. Thas sucker just refuses to fall into place.

    I have some opening lines/scenes that come out right the first time, while others give me a lot of work - be it finding a good line, or the right place to begin with at all.

    I like the one of my Nano: Sturla's dragon ships came in the night.

  19. This is the first line in my current WIP. Have no idea if it's any good, but I think it fits. Let's see! :D

    'Driving home to attend the funeral of a parent was something no child wanted to do.'

    There, you go. :)