FiF’s Favorites: First Lines

FiF’s Favorites: First Lines

Due to technical difficulties, there will be no audio-only podcast this week. My apologies. Please be sure to watch the YouTube video below.


ASK THE AUTHOR: From Dave Fessenden via Could you address in one of your podcasts the issue of multiple story lines in a novel? I see the importance of subplots for lending realism to a story, where a problem in one’s professional life and one’s love life and one’s domestic situation all hinge on the main problem of finding a dead body in your trash can, but there are myriad difficulties to this mash-up of plots and subplots, don’t you agree? Or am I the only one who feels like subplots tend to distract as much as they enrich a story?

AARON: This is a pretty subjective question, and I think it varies by genre. Some people love the subplots (fantasy readers especially). Others find them tedious and boring. Of course, when done well, most novels will have at least one sub-plot. I think the key is to find a subplot that is as compelling as the main plot. If it matters to your characters, it should matter to your readers. I think the Eragon and Wheel of Time series are good examples of too many subplots, but they have a very devoted fan base. I wasn’t thrilled with all the subplots in LOTR, but it’s nearly heresy to say so. Make it matter, make it relevant, and you’re good.

POPS: Anything longer that a short story needs subplots. A subplot brings an extra dimension to a story. It’s hard to imagine a full novel without a couple of subplots. Imagine you sit down to have a meal and the waiter brings you a nice steak. Cool! But he doesn’t bring anything else. That might be fine for a day or two, but soon you start feeling like things are missing. A great meal has several elements to it. So does a great story. And as with food, the other items on the dish should augment the main element. So, a nice baked potato goes well with a steak. So does a veggie. The eater is far more satisfied because there has been more than one item on the plate. Great, now I’m hungry.

MJ: As a mystery writer, I embrace the subplots. Like us in real life, our characters are multifaceted and their journey is not linear. But if a subplot is too distracting, then I question whether it’s truly a subplot or a secondary main plot; which as you’re describing, might be better suited as a separate book. I consider the novel to be a diamond; and each facet (character, setting, plot, etc.) should cause it to shine and add to its worth, not crack and deter from its beauty.

Firsts in Fiction

FiF’s Favorites: First Lines!


We’ve got a fun show lined up for you. Rather than chatting about how to write fiction, we’re going to take a look at some of our favorite first lines and what we love about them. Aaron cut his teeth on writing about first lines (his first book was an analysis of the best first lines in novels, and how to write a great first lines). Firsts In Fiction (on Amazon)

“All this happened, more or less.” And, “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut.

The first begins chapter one, but some argue that the “story” of the novel begins in the second chapter, which is why I’ve included both lines. Also, I love them both. The first establishes an honesty between author and reader, and also creates some tension. What parts are true and which aren’t? He goes on to say in the second line: “The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.” This quasi vulnerability and blatant authorial intrusion sets the tone for the rest of the novel. And the first line of the second chapter establishes the conflict perfectly. It’s also very silly. I like a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Al: First, let’s understand what a great first line is. It is the author’s way of seizing (not touching, not asking, but seizing) the reader’s attention. It is the flash of lighting that comes before the thunder. And there must be thunder to follow. So, a great first line cannot stand on its own for long. Let me illustrate with one of my favorite first lines. First: the lightning:

“Death had no good reason being out on a night like this.” (Jack Cavanaugh, The Guardians, p.9, 2008)

Notice the elements. The shocker: “Death.” The puzzle: “had no good reason.” The question: What is special about the night?

Now the thunder:

“It was September warm. The Santa Ana wind had scrubbed the sky clean. The harvest moon cast a soft light. It was a perfect evening for a carefree stroll. Not a killing night at all.”

The first line puts the key into the lock; what follows turns the tumblers and opens the door.

It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer. The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

There’s always been something about this short story that has captivated me. I first read it in college, and from the moment those first words crawled into my brain closet, they’ve refused to leave. It sets up the rest of the story with who, where, when, and hints at what’s to come (“ordinary people”). She appears inadequate yet proud, as she includes herself as being one who also secured the hall, rather than tagging along with her husband. She starts out as an equal, which is quite bold when you consider the era in which the story takes place.

Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. “Stop!” cried the groaning old man at last, “Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree.” Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans

Here’s another great example of an unexpected first line. We have enough detail to ground us in a specific setting, and enough detail to know exactly what’s going on, but we don’t know WHY. This is the proper way to create mystery. While most writers think a lack of detail creates the mystery, the opposite is true. The more detail you give, the more questions we have, the more intrigued we are as readers. Plus, I love the dialog and how it alludes to a larger story-world. Dragging fathers through orchards is a family tradition? I want to know this family.

AL: Sometimes writers inadvertently bury their first line deeper in the chapter. By that I mean, they have a line that is stronger than the first line. When you start your first chapter, in your first draft, don’t sweat the first line. It may come to you as you write. That’s one reason we rewrite. Here’s an example for Dean Koontz (Sole Survivor, 1997, pg.4).

Mr. Koontz’s first line:

“At two-thirty Saturday morning, in Los Angeles, Joe Carpenter woke, clutching a pillow to his chest, calling his lost wife’s name in the darkness.”

It’s a great first line. We get a setting, and uncomfortable image, the protagonist’s name, and the fact that he’s lost his wife. All very important and Koontz builds on this like the master writer he is, but…ten paragraphs down is this:

“Beer at two-thirty in the morning. A sliding-down life.”

In my opinion (and Dean Koontz needs no lessons from me) the beer line should have led. It has more lighting. The original first line is great thunder and would be even stronger following the slap-in-the-face first line.

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

As mentioned last week, and as my Southern girls know, I’m very much in love with GWTW. This first line tells us who the protagonist is, and shows much of her strong-willed character. From her name we can assume also she’s of Irish descent, which further adds strength to the storyline ~ have you ever read of a weak Irishperson? Right off the bat, she’s pitting brothers against each other for her affections. This is a woman who knows how to play her strengths as a weakness. Again, a strong independent woman in that era is seldom accepted. Scarlett is my heroine.

It was the day my grandmother exploded. —Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m a sucker for unexpected first lines. They’re original and funny (often times) and make me want to read the second sentence. Really, that’s the job of the first line: to get us to the second. An exploding grandmother is cause enough (at least for me) to read on.

AL: Another Dean Koontz example. This one is from his 1973, Strangers (p.3). It has stuck with me for years.

“Dominick Corvaisis went to sleep under a light wool blanket and a crisp white sheet, sprawled alone in his bed, but woke elsewhere–in the darkness at the back of the large foyer closet behind concealing coats and jackets.”

This image stuck with me because it is jarring. Imagine going to bed tonight but waking up in a closet. As a bit of a homage to Dean Koontz, I included a similar scene in my second novel, By Hands. Not as a first line, but as a plot development. My protagonist finds his new wife comatose in the bedroom closet.

Notice Koontz’s line is long and complex. The reader is stuck in the narration.

Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

I think almost anyone is familiar with the Chronicles of Narnia even if they haven’t read them. For me, all of the books carry a grandfatherly tone. As a child, reading (or listening to my parents read), I wanted to know, who are these children grouped together? Do they like each other? Why are they together? Did they grow up? It’s a simple opener, but for me it’s full of magic and entices me to continue reading.

Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up. —Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear it Away

Here’s another one of my favorite authors popping up on my list. (I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I neglected to add Tim O’Brien and Bret Anthony Johnston to my list of favorite authors from last week). What I love about this line is how long it is, but how easily readable it is. It is absolutely packed with specific detail, but leaves enough of a mystery for us to keep reading. And talk about conflict! We’ve got a dead drunk at a breakfast table and a moonshiner digging a grave? What more do you need to keep your interest?

AL: Here’s one from a guy you may have heard of: Ernest Hemingway. His work leans toward the literary style. The Old Man and the Sea is a novella published in 1952 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Hemingway just drops the reader into the story without preamble or explanation. The reader learns what he/she needs to know as the story progresses:

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” (pg. 9)

So he gives us a character (old man), a location (the Gulf Stream), and a problem (gone eighty-four days without taking a fish). That’s the lightning. Now the thunder:

“In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at the their order in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.

A powerful use of pathos. In those few lines we see a man who has lost his youth, his reputation, his luck, and his helper. We love the old man before we know anything more. And Hemingway does this in trademark voice of simple, direct prose.

I am always drawn back to places I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote

I should have added Capote to my favorite author’s list last week. This is my addendum. This line intrigues me. Who’s speaking? I want to know how many places the author has lived, why he’s drawn back, but also why he left? He differentiates between the houses and neighborhoods, which makes me wonder what moments have occurred in and out of the homes he lived in. It reads both as a distant memory, and a current habit, and makes me want more of his stories.

“Tell me Things I won’t mind forgetting,” she said. “Make it useless stuff or skip it.” Amy Hempel, In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.

Hempel is another one of my faves (who sadly didn’t make my list. Wish I had thought a bit more about short-story writers). This is probably her best work, and the opening lines make us wonder why unimportant things are important. We know a character has memory issues, and we know she’s speaking to someone close to her. This is a surprisingly intimate thing to say to someone. Normally, I’m not a fan of dialog openings, but this one makes the cut.

AL: Science fiction writer Ben Bova began his 1996 novel, Moonrise with this fragment of dialogue (pg. 3):

“Magnificent desolation.”

Very short hook. What is magnificent desolation and since when is desolation magnificent? The reader must move from the lightening to the thunder:

“Paul Stavenger always spoke those words whenever he stepped out onto the bare dusty surface of the Moon. But this time it was more than a quotation: it was a supplication, a prayer.”

Now we know that he’s on the Moon (yes Bova capitalizes Moon) and something is up.

A man without hands came to the door to sell me a photograph of my house. Raymond Carver, Viewfinder

Now how does a man without hands take a picture? I’m in. Bring me more.

AL: One of the best sci fi books I’ve read I thought I’d hate. I couldn’t get past the title Amish Zombies from Space. Believe it or not, it was a great book (a follow up to Amish Vampires in Space). This first line isn’t catching. Doesn’t have lightening or thunder, but the setting is enough to intrigue readers.

“The sound of hammers was constant.”

This followed by:

“On the roof of the structure, a dozen young men in light shirts and dark trousers hammered and shifted left, hammered and shifted.”

We’re seeing a barn raising, the kind of thing Amish are known for. Part of the set up in the chapter title: Planet Resolve. We have Amish on another planet. Okay, that demands a little explanation.

Afterward, he tried to reduce it to abstract terms, an accident in a world of accidents, the collision of opposing forces–the bumper of his car and the frail scrambling hunched-over form of a dark little man with a wild look in his eye–but he wasn’t very successful.  T. C. Boyle, The Tortilla Curtain

Here’s a longer line, that really drops us into the mind of the character, but also gives us enough physical details to put things together so we’re not lost. Again, the balance of detail and thought is perfectly struck here, and it establishes a real, tangible conflict.

AL: This one is from my good friend, Edie Melson. She had done nonfiction, but when I first met her she was working on a novel. That novel, Alone, is now out.

“Only the chimes, oddly sweet, told the passing of time.”

As with the Amish story, we begin with a sound, not a visual. Then comes:

“This far beneath the surface, day and night were arbitrary, dictated by necessity, not nature.”

So we’re underground. Why are we underground? Only one way to find out. Keep reading.

It rained throughout September and October, and people made jokes about Biblical floods before the Sheldon girls drowned. Chris Bohjalian, The Buffalo Soldier.

I don’t know exactly where this takes place, but I’m starting to get a sense of the town. It’s small, because everyone stops making jokes when the twins die. Probably a close-knit community. We’ve got conflict–gut-wrenching conflict. We’re in for a heavy read, but it’s one we want to embark on, because we want to know what happened to the girls, and what happens after.

He thought first of his feet. Enoch, Alton Gansky

So maybe he didn’t make my list of favorite authors last week, but Pops shows up here on this list. I wanted to include this one because it’s different than the others. Yes, it has the element of the unexpected, but it also has a lot of poetic elements to it. We’ve got a bit of alliteration (first, feet) and we have two anapests (poetic feet consisting of two unaccented syllables followed by one accented syllable). bum bum BUM, bum bum BUM. It’s got a great ring to it, a nice musicality. I like it.

AL: And I return the favor. Aaron draws us into Who is Harrison Sawyer with:

“Harrison Sawyer didn’t sleep the night he died.”

One of the things a good first line can do is raise questions in the reader’s mind. Here we have a character and a bit of setting topped with a stunning revelation.

Then the thunder:

“He lay awake in earnest prayer like his Savior had two thousand years ago.”

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