Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Beginnings: Opening Lines

by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

(Please note: That picture has absolutely *nothing* to do with what I'm about to write, but why *not* add a handsome man's picture to my post if I've got one lying around the old computer? If you find him handsome enough, you won't care if what follows fails to entertain or makes no sense!)

"Have you become a fuckwit, Jane?"

Pretty acerbic, I know, but that's the line that launched my career as a novelist, the first line of my debut novel, The Thin Pink Line. And it does suit the story that follows. How else to begin a contemporary novel about a sociopathic Londoner who decides to fake an entire pregnancy?

When people ask me about my - I can't believe I'm going to use this pretentious word that I hate, but OK, here goes - process, I say that I typically begin a new book with three things: 1) an idea (e.g. woman fakes entire pregnancy); 2) a character (e.g. sociopathic Londoner Jane Taylor, who stitches together her own crazy story; 3) an opening line (e.g. "Have you become a fuckwit, Jane?") I often also know the final line as well, even though I rarely know how I'm going to get from first to last, but there's no point in giving away last lines just in case you were all going to immediately rush out and buy all my books - I don't want to spoil the endings for you!

But first lines...ah, first lines...I can talk about them all day. First lines set the tone for everything that follows.

Take the opening from Vertigo, a book which is about as far from The Thin Pink Line as it's possible for a book to be. Actually, it's the first two lines, which encompass the entire prologue, Vertigo being a dark novel set in Victorian England involving murder. "For nearly seventeen years, I was a good, some might say exemplary, wife. As I put pen to paper for the first time to record my tale, it is important you know this about me from the start." You know what this line says to me? It says, "Uh-oh. Things are not going to go well for this woman, are they?"

Writing for young adults, as I also do, presents its own set of challenges. The YA market is so exciting to write for these days, the story possibilities endless because the audience is so intensely imaginative, but due to the competing-for-attention items such as advanced technology, that same audience has pretty much the shortest attention span in recorded history. So you have to grab that attention fast. Here's Lucius, opening his part of the two-voice he-said/she-said novel Crazy Beautiful: "My arm rises toward my face and the pincer touch of cold steel rubs against my jaw. I chose hooks because they were cheaper. I chose hooks because I wouldn't outgrow them so quickly. I chose hooks so that everyone would know I was different, so I would scare even myself."

And then there's the challenge of writing for even younger kids, like the nine-book The Sisters 8 series for kids approximately six to ten years old. Chapter One of Book 1 opens: "It was New Year's Eve 2007, approximately ten o'clock, and we were just getting ready to celebrate Christmas." There are a few important things in that first sentence: 1) why are they celebrating Christmas on New Year's Eve?; 2) the line sounds so innocent and yet before the 12-page chapter is through, the octuplet stars of the series will realize their parents have disappeared and it's up to them to solve the mystery of those twin disappearances while keeping the rest of the world from realizing they're home alone; 3) the most important thing of all, we - "we were just getting ready to celebrate Christmas. The entire series, with the exception of the prologues, is written in the rare first person plural. It sets the quirky tone for all the quirkiness to follow.

Anyway, that's just a sampling from the 19 openings I've had published in my career thus far. This coming November, I'll have a new YA novel out, Little Women and Me, the prologue of which begins: " 'There's no such thing as a perfect book,' Mr. Ochocinco says." Not long after that, my teen heroine gets sucked out of her contemporary world and into the world of the classic novel Little Women, where she must choose to right one of that novel's chief wrongs: the death of Beth or the fact that Laurie winds up with Amy instead of Jo. I hope it will turn out that my first line serves the novel well.

So how about you? What are some of your favorite opening lines from your own writing? Come on - don't be shy!

Be well. Don't forget to write.


  1. Hi Lauren, My hat is off to anyone who can write YA! And you do a superb job as I discovered while reading your novel THE TWIN'S DAUGHTER. It's a tough job capturing the imagination of such a diverse audience!

    Opening line:"You wouldn't think that the smell of bourbon could derail a business dinner." Not exactly YA! lol

    BTW, love the title of you new book, LITTLE WOMEN AND ME

  2. Dang. That Crazy Beautiful opening is provocative! Must read NOW.
    Great post.

  3. I LOVE this topic of opening lines! And yours in-Thin Pink Line-is awesome, definitely an attention grabber. The reader must read on because they are wondering-what has this person done?!

    Here's one I can never get out of my head. LOL.
    Opening line from Jennifer Cruisie's -Tell Me Lies:
    One hot August Thursday afternoon, Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband’s Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace bikini underpants. They weren’t hers.

    So simple, says so much and grabs the reader! Opening lines are so crucial. Thanks for the fun, Lauren!

  4. Lauren, I love the sound of LITTLE WOMEN AND ME and its first line!

    Let's see, my first line--and a few subsequent ones--from LITTLE BLACK DRESS: I never meant to resurrect the dress. I had intended for it to remain out of reach so there would be no more meddling. But I awoke before dawn with tears in my eyes after another strange dream about Anna, and I knew that I had to find it.

    Just cracked open THE PARIS WIFE to read, and it has a lovely first line in the Prologue: Though I had often looked for one, I finally had to admit that there could be no cure for Paris.

    Like Marian said, this is fun! :-)

  5. Lauren, I'd read and *loved* Crazy Beautiful! The intriguing opening line was perfect for the start of that story ;).

    Marian, I became a fan of Crusie's because of openings like that... That line was so memorable, and the entire first page of Bet Me still makes me laugh aloud every time I read it.

    The first 2 lines of my debut book, According to Jane, are: I always thought Homer painted his character Odysseus as a real slow learner with that whole twenty-year journey thing. I mean, what kind of an idiot needs two decades to understand a simple lesson like "Don't be arrogant in the eyes of the gods"?

  6. GREAT opener on Crazy/Beautiful. Instantly draws the reader right in!

  7. Sorry, I got so dizzy after the picture of Idris, I couldn't read your post! LOL.

  8. Carleen, you cracked me up! Who can blame you??? Did you see the miniseries "Luther" back in the fall? That, with him in it, was the best thing on TV last year.

    Laura, Karin, Susan, Marilyn and Brenda, thanks for the kind words and for some of you providing your own quotes - I love hearing everyone else's.

    Marian, so good to see you here!

  9. I love a good first line. I can and will read a book without one, but to me it's that initial glance, that somewhat fleeting first impression that is often wrong but - oh - when it's not - it's quite wonderful, both in books and in real life.

    I have a book on submission now (you've read it, Lauren!) and I've always been partial to the opening: Evie never expected to get divorced, let alone sit Shiva for her ex-husband in a house with a Christmas tree. Yet there she was.

    I think first lines need to grab, not just lure. Especially for aspiring authors looking for that first sale.

    Thanks for all the great examples!

  10. Great post, Lauren:) I love reading all the opening lines.

    I guess my own personal favorite is from my first published book, Bunco Babes Tell All. "It was all Kevin Costner's fault."