Every couple of months, a new listicle pops up on my Facebook or Twitter feed rounding up the greatest opening lines in literature. Or there’s pitchmases. Or there are improve-your-writing articles about landing an agent by sharpening your opening sentences. Obviously the start of a story is important. I think, on that, we can all agree. Today I thought I’d walk you through the evolution of some of my opening lines.
This is the opening paragraph of my second novel, Ariah, which was released last week:
There are times I still have nightmares about that first day in Rabatha. I’d come from Ardijan, which is a small place built around the river and the factories. It’s a town that is mostly inhabited by the elves who work the factories with a smattering of Qin foremen and administrators. We outnumber them there. We’re still poor and overworked, we still get hassled, but there is a comfort in numbers. It was a comfort so deeply bred in me that stepping off the train in Rabatha was a harrowing experience. The train, a loud, violent thing that cloaked half the city in steam, plowed right into the center of the city and dropped me off only three streets away from the palace. Even with all the steam, I could see its spires and domes. Even with all the commotion, I could hear the barked orders and vicious slurs of the Qin enforcement agents.
In order to craft successful opening lines, you may need to take a step back and consider what you want them to do. This is your first interaction with your reader. These sentences have to set your tone, kick off your plot, introduce your setting and your characters—any number of things. Choose wisely. In the case of Ariah, I really needed to emphasize:
- The story is told in retrospect
- Ariah’s deep emotional sensitivity (he still has nightmares)
- Ariah is an elf, which is an oppressed class in this world (there are slurs thrown at him when he arrives)
- Create a sense of urgency and chaos in the reader
Ok, compare that to the opening of the first draft of Ariah*:
I honestly had no idea what to expect that day. I suppose that’s how most feel, though, when they first meet those who are supposed to take them on as apprentices. Then again, usually it’s already someone you know – someone from your town, someone that runs in the same circles with your parents. The kind of person whose children you played with growing up. So most probably at least knew what they were getting into. I didn’t. I was shipped off to the capital, a strange bustling city I’d never been to before, and told to go see someone whose name I’d only ever seen on the spines of books in my mother’s study. All I really knew was that I was terribly nervous. What if he didn’t like me? Would it be worse if he took me on as a pupil anyway or refused my parents’ request? What if I didn’t like him?
Clearly I rewrote this, which means I don’t think it’s that strong. I think this opening lacks urgency—it’s meandering where it should be gripping. It’s thoughtful where it should have some force to it. It’s more focused on Ariah’s unnamed mentor than on Ariah himself. It’s shot through with telling instead of showing: he says he’s nervous, but we, as readers, don’t feel that nervousness. We are not immersed in a situation that makes us feel nervous with him.
Most of my openings start like this in the first draft—bland, telling without the showing. They usually drastically improve in revisions. Often, simply because in the second draft I actually know the story I’m telling. For example, one reason the first draft opening is written about the mentor is because the story was originally supposed to be about the mentor. Ariah was only supposed to be a viewpoint character reflecting on the mentor, but then Ariah took on a life of his own and took over the narrative. He went rogue, and the opening lines became an artifact of a story that was never actually written.
In my writing, the opening lines of first drafts get written first—sloppily—simply because you have to write something. You have to start somewhere. The rest of the draft comes together, the writing tightens up as it does, you find your voice somewhere in the middle and get a cadence. By the end of the first draft you finally have figured out what the story is about. Then, you start rewriting. You fiddle with the first part, and you rewrite, and you rewrite, but those opening lines are actually the last thing to get seriously tweaked and polished precisely because they are the first thing everyone will actually see. Those lines are high-stakes, which makes them intimidating as shit, so you hold them off and perfect everything else, then you perfect them.
I am generally not a critical self-editor, except when it comes to the first paragraph and the last paragraph, these make-or-break-a-book lines. These are the ones that have to be just right. These are also the ones, though, that can be killed by too much fussing. You have to let them breathe; you have to resist the urge to over-write them. You have to trust your gut that you’ve finished them and done them as well as you have it in you to do them. You have to stop yourself from fiddling with them forever to stave off the terror of putting your work out there.
*Oh, man, showing you parts of a first draft is like showing you my messy bedroom. I know everyone has one, but it doesn’t make it any less embarrassing.