Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Taking a Good Idea and Elevating It

It's safe to say that the last Page Critique Thursday was one of the more controversial Page Critiques in our history.

Some people loved the first line, and were confused and a tad horrified I suggested removing it.

Now, part of my reaction was undoubtedly completely subjective and was inevitably influenced by my own personal taste and should be taken with huge heapings of salt. Because I definitely understand that quite a few people love openings like this first line in question. They want to be hit with something clever and pithy and thought provoking, and it makes them want to read more. That's totally fine! Honestly. Knowing what you like is an incredibly important step.

My own feeling is that while pithy, high concept opening lines often show a great deal of promise, they can sometimes enter a zone where they feel like a grape that has yet to be plucked. A really tasty apple in a pie that hasn't yet gone in the oven. In other words: A great start, but not yet baked into the story.

Speaking generally, when there's a pithy first line that stands alone and is wholly separate from the next paragraph and the flow of the story, they can sometimes feel more like a tag line than the start a novel. They advertise the plot and premise and the author's cleverness, but it's not really the beginning of the story. The hand of the author can feel a bit too present.

In order for a pithy or clever first line to work for me, the most important thing is that it fits naturally into the flow of the opening. It's not a non sequitor, it's not out of step with what the main character is thinking or feeling at that moment, it doesn't just exist for the sake of being clever, it doesn't feel forced. There's a reason that we are getting that first line at the time we're getting it. What follows that first line builds off that thought rather than leaving it dangling there as a teaser.

For instance, Jeff Abbott's Fear starts with a high concept first line. "I killed my best friend." It doesn't get much more high concept and catchy than that. But what follows is the context for that line: "Miles stared at the words, black in their clean lines against the white of the paper. First time to write the truth. He put the pen back to the pad. I didn't want to kill him, didn't need to kill him. But I did."

Jeff didn't just leave that first line dangling, it's woven into the narrative. There's a reason we're getting it there, and it all builds together in such a way that the line sucks us into the story rather than leaving us wondering what happened to that line.

I often compare openings to a trust fall. If you're going to execute a very daring maneuver with the opening, it's so so necessary to catch the reader afterward. And the way to do that is not just by wowing the reader with an opening (though that's undoubtedly a great start), but by integrating that cleverness into the flow of the story.

Build off that cleverness. Take that idea and then dial it up a notch by weaving it into the narrative. When it's an integral part of the story and feels perfectly natural, the idea will be that much better.






56 comments:

DUO said...

Openings have and always will be subjective - just like th plot idea of a book.

The most important thing is that it has to work for the idea of the story and follow through seamlessly. The very first line of the story sets the scene for the rest of the book and needs to immediately engage with the reader.

I think that if a particular reader likes the genre of the book, they are more likely to 'get' the first line.

Sierra Gardner said...

I'm totally going to agree with this. As a reader it can be frustrating to feel like the author is using a gimmick instead of drawing you into a great story.

D. U. Okonkwo said...

Hmm, gimmicks may work for an author which has a large following because they are used to it and trust the author, if not...very risky.

Lisa Kilian said...

I love subtle opening lines that grow with the paragraph. And if I get to the end and the first line is completely different — even better.

That's my goal at least. :)

Mira said...

Well, I agree with you, I think you'r spot on, Nathan.

Although I felt the piece last week did that, or at least was trying to do that...

But anyway, in terms of the subjective part to things - I love pithy openings that hook me. For an excellent example of a pithy opening, here's Charles Dicken's opening to a Christmas Carol:

"Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that."

The first two paragraphs of a Christmas Carol are a treasure. And he does weave the opening into the following paragraphs, so there you are.

Mira said...

Oh, I just have to share the whole first paragraph. Look at the artistry in this. It's gorgeous:

"Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail."

Funny, pithy, gorgeous.

But he totally weaves it in. I do think you are dead on target, Nathan - unless handled skillfully, a pithy opening can be clumsy and distracting. But when handled well - like above - it's magic.

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

I agree. Thanks for the post.

Kaitlyne said...

For what it's worth, I'm with you on this one. It struck me more as the kind of hooky line that might be used in the opening paragraph of a query than the opening line of a novel. I wasn't sure what it was that threw me off the first time, but now that you've explained it, I think you hit the nail on the head. It's just that it was floating there above the story without any connection.

Marlene Nash-McKay said...

I agree with Sierra. A gimmicky opening shouts: Look at me! Look at how clever I am with words! And I personally find it a total turnoff especially if, like you pointed out Nathan, it's not seamlessly woven into the story.
I dare venture (at great personal risk) that many great literary works start with seemingly ordinary first lines when taken out of context. Take Pride & Prejudice for instance: 'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.' That one line, right there, literally sets the tone for the rest of the book and it could not have been more perfectly penned.
And then some opening lines just blow you away: 'There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.' Who in their right mind can read that line and not want to know more?

Robin_Lucas said...

Love this thought:
"Opening lines are like a trust fall"

Michael Offutt said...

My favorite first line in a book came from "The Thief of Always" by Clive Barker. It said, "The great gray beast of February had swallowed Harvey Swick alive." Then of course he went on to talk about how February lies between all the holidays and is far enough removed from Christmas to be really boring for a child. I immediately related and it sucked me in...definitely wasn't gimicky at all. And with this book, I definitely wasn't disappointed. I enjoyed the whole thing thoroughly.

Cathy said...

I don't have a problem with hooky opening lines if, as you say, they're worked into the rest of the narrative. So for me the issue wasn't the hook, it was that the fun voice and attitude got lost and the promise didn't carry through. Great post -- I was impressed by your edit!

laurie said...

Gimmickry puts me off, actually drives me away--which is why, I suppose, I am not a genre reader. From where I am sitting, you were right on target, Nathan.

anvil said...

So much emphasis is put on how the reader experiences the opening line, and I agree with much of what was said. But I keep thinking of the first line of a book I finished and is languishing in my draw waiting to be re-written as a second draft. One of the problems? The opening line. I workshopped the first 10 pages at a conference last summer, and had friends and family weigh in too. The only thing everyone agreed on is the utter fabulousness of the first line. Now, it's like a lead weight around my neck (albatross!) and I can't yet bring myself to go back to it. Sometimes, the first line is too fabulous and must be killed. This is what I'm telling myself. I'm going to cafe press to make a t-shirt that says "Kill Your Darlings"

Debbie said...

A current favorite is from "Room" by Emma Donoghue.

Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. "Was I minus numbers?"

She gives us our narrator/protagonist and a hint about his world.

Misha said...

Good point. The smartest opening sentences mean nothing if it makes me wonder what the heck it has to do with the situation at hand.

:-)

Jenny said...

The critique last Thursday was interesting because there are basically three different responses to the question of what to do with the opening: leave it, leave it and change what follows, take it out.

In critique sessions it's difficult to pick out what you should/should not take away from the critique. The critiques, regardless of individual opinions and whatever all the actual suggestions are, point out that the opening needs reworking.

Maybe it was the first line. Maybe the 'off-part' was actually what followed the opening line. When we receive critiques, we have to be open to play with the suggestions. I hope that the author takes a few minutes and just plays around with the opening. Maybe going through it will provide the answer. (Because the author also has to keep their own skill level and the whole of the story , genre, etc. in mind--we're not all Dickens or Emma Donoghue, right? I wish!--in order to figure out the answer for the manuscript.)

Anonymous said...

Bravo.

I was one who liked the first line very much.

And then I immediately wondered why and how she had died three times.

I was left dangling. I was willing to be left there believing the author would give me the answer.

But I see how what you say, Nathan, could be that much more powerful.

Still...

John Jack said...

Too often it's not what's written that fails, it's what's lacking. There's so many things essential to include, especially in opening lines, that it's hard to tell with one set of eyes whether it's enough. And what's in the mind of a writer that bridges the gaps aren't readily bridgeable by readers.

Too much is equally as problematic. Some accomplished authors get by with bridgeable gaps with lean writing; some with fat writing bridge gaps. There's going to be gaps either way, but too much fat can also break trust by talking down to readers.

Diana said...

Ah, your advice last week now makes sense to me. With only the first page to go on and not knowing whether the rest of the manuscript will deliver, it is probably better to advise removing the hooky first sentence than to leave it in.

D.G. Hudson said...

It's almost like the snowflake method, where you take the germ of the idea or subject and keep building layers upon layers. Expanding from that first hook is a way of weaving in the support/details for that first line.

I tend to like subtle openings with intriguing leads, even if a body has to show up early.

Thoughtful advice, as usual, Nathan. Much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

The opening sentences from last week were perfect. Keep them.

Doug said...

I detest a bait-and-switch opening. It says to me, "the writer isn't going to play fair." If you're not going to play fair with your readers, I'm not going to read your work.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Openings like that are a lot like the "Prologue of things to come" (where the author's beginning is a bit sedate, so he/she "teases" the reader with an action scene from later in the story.

They rarely work the way the writer intended.

Sean said...

There's only one way to go after a great opening line. Which, if I'm lucky to pull one off, is why I usually stop thereafter and call it a book.

Always get out when you're on top and leave em wanting more.

Anonymous said...

Apples and oranges. The first line: golden. The follow-up needed to match it.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

I should clarify that I'm not saying the only solution was to remove the first lines. That's one solution, but I also think it could work if the subsequent paragraphs jumped off a bit more from the tone set by the first lines and they were more woven together.

Chemist Ken said...

I don't care much for opening lines that sound as though the author is trying too hard to make it memorable. For me, the best opening lines look as though they just happened by accident, and were just as much a surprise to the author as to the reader.

medussa74 said...

I really like the first line, but after some deliberation, I'm beginning to see Nathan's point. I wonder, though, what if that line was worked in at the end instead?

Anonymous said...

"it could work if the subsequent paragraphs jumped off a bit more from the tone set by the first lines and they were more woven together"

Agreed.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I suppose the thing to remember is that first lines don't exist in isolation. The following lines have to keep attention as much as the first line grabs it, and the best way to keep a reader interested is to continue building off what the first line promises, to weave it into the story rather than have it stick out like a diamond in mud, to integrate it seamlessly into the rest of the narrative. Otherwise it will stand out only as a gimmick, or the rest of the story (or at least the opening) will seem dull in comparison.

Rebecca said...

Oooh, Mira, that's one of my favorite opening paragraphs ever!

But anyway, I agree with Nathan. I had a very hook-y first line, but I recently took it out in favor of more of a slow build - which is more in keeping with the tone of the story, anyway. That hook-y first line works great in my query letter, though!

Mira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
nutschell said...

what i love are opening lines that sound ordinary at first, but slowly gain meaning as i read on. Opening lines that look unassuming at first, but then turn out to be a great foreshadowing in the end.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

Mr. D said...

Opening lines are important for obvious reasons, but I think the final line is important, too.

Vic said...

I didn't like the first line of the opener in question, because it came across as trying too hard. But I have to admit, I felt that way about the rest of it too. Potential, but a long way to go.

My guess is this person still belongs to the OWW kind of group, where you have to try and please as many people as possible and the work ends up losing the confidence to be itself.

JaysonC said...

With a few exceptions I don't think that a supposedly great opening line works for books. For me, they work better in the realm of television of movies. For example, after the opening credits for Star Trek II blue text appears in front of blackness that reads "In the 23rd century" and then the movie starts.

I'm not sure why that little bit of text at the beginning of the movie has stuck with me but maybe it's just so simple. I have a hard time believeing that the same thing would work as well in a book.

Sari Webb said...

Well when you put it like that...
Thanks for explaining it that way Nathan, now I can make sure to avoid the half baked apple pie.

wendy said...

Wow - that's a great explanation. Thanks for elevating me, Nathan, with not only a new understanding of writing fiction but a better way to critique it.

ARJules said...

Let me start off by saying that I completely understand what you are saying Nathan. And it is definitely something I need to think about and work on. They were excellent points and I'm definitely going to rework the page and try to find a different way to go about it.

I think that part of the issue was that I concentrated more on the scene itself rather than what was going on inside the character's head. (Which I believe was mentioned in your critique.)

The opening line was completely something that would have come straight from her brain. Whether people here believe it or not, it wasn't meant as a gimmick, but as something that was consistent with the character. But I understand why people would say that. As Jenny said, I just need to play with it and see what the best outcome would be.

So thank you for the blog! It was very helpful!

Mira said...

ARJules - I'm abit concerned about you. It's not often that someone has to bear under the pressure of being critiqued twice in a public setting.

I agree with Katie - I hope you take in all the various feedback and trust your instincts. I think what is ultimately important - given all the conflicting responses you got, even on this thread, half of the people feel one way, and half another - is what you like or don't like about your writing.

So, it really doesn't matter, but for the record, I continue to love the opening of your work. Not everyone can write lines like that.

ARJules said...

Thanks Mira! I think part of the whole writing process is getting critique and dealing with both positive and negative feedback. Some points I take and try to make my writing better. Other points I ignore.

The fact of the matter is that some people will love what you write, others will loathe it. No writer will ever please everyone with their work. And that is perfectly okay.

But I appreciate your supportive comments. I'm glad you liked my first page at least! :)

ARJules said...

P.S. Nathan - I love the picture you used on your blog today. I work at NASA, and I love me some space shuttle-ness. The picture is also timely since Discovery went up today. (Even though that is Columbia in the picture.)

Mira said...

ARJules - :) Personally, I'm a total wuss when it comes to feedback, so I admire anyone who signs up for this type of thing.

Please keep on, and please don't forget something else Nathan said about your piece - more than once if I remember correctly -

"This author can definitely write!"

So, there you are.

Nathan Bransford said...

Yeah, seriously ARJules, you definitely can write and you have such a clever start and thanks again for offering the page for critique. I know you're going to find the opening that's right for you and that's the most important thing!!

Sheila Cull said...

"compare opening lines to a trust fall," now, this is pithy and clever Nathan Bransford!

Patrick Neylan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Patrick Neylan said...

Sorry, Nathan's right. I could feel the uncomfortable lurch between the first and second paragraph as the writer pulled us in a different direction.

The true test? I read Nathan's rewrite first by mistake, thinking I was reading the original, and thought, "Can't see a lot wrong with that."

The fact that so many people love the seemingly ordinary phrase "Opening lines are like a trust fall" suggests that it must have lots of resonance and associations for American readers. I'm a bit baffled by it myself. What is a trust fall?

Karen Peterson said...

Thanks so much for this post, Nathan. I agreed with you about that line, but couldn't really pinpoint exactly why.

Patty Blount said...

In my novel about a former cyberbully trying to live with the guilt from the suicide he caused, I opened with this line:

"God must have been bullied as a kid."

I thought it was wonderful! I thought it neatly showed not just the guilt my MC felt but how helpless he feels in trying to 'fix' anything.

But I forgot something and it turned out to be critical.

God is a touchy subject. Devout readers might be offended by my use. Non-believers might expect the book to be a Christian inspirational and read no further.

It may have been a great line, leading with it stripped it of any context with which readers might form the correct impression.

Luckily, I had some wonderful beta readers to point that out to me. I removed the line.

iheartya said...

I wonder if this is only true for novels. Flash fiction seems to play into the idea of letting the reader drop (in reference to your trust fall) until the very last line, where they are caught by a toenail.

Danielle Rose said...

I like how you call it a trust fall. It truly is.

Anonymous said...

I was one of the readers who was surprised you suggested cutting the line, but this is a great explanation.

I get it.

Jesse said...

I have to agree with the stand that the opening line should be removed. It read, to me, as forced cleverness and it didn't hook me. In fact, it rather turned me off of reading the rest. The next paragraph had a great hook in the first sentence. So, I stand with you, Nathan. Lose the first line and open with the first paragraph. It works better.

Matthew Rush said...

I suppose I agree in general, because kind of like a mix tape, I prefer for a novel to build, slowly, or quickly, either way is fine, as long as the most exciting, can't put this book down section, is closer to the end. I'm going to get way too danced out if the best song is the first one.

Then again there are exceptions to everything. I can't think of an example right now, but I'm sure they're out there.

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