Craft: first pages

I adore writing my opening chapters, so much so that I could easily spend a hundred pages writing the beginning rather than dive into the conflict. I love world building. I’d happily build churches and businesses and cottages and castles and people them with the inhabitants of my imagination if anyone would buy books like that.  But for some odd reason, readers want characters to DO something, not just stand around engaging in witty banter and intelligent discourse inside my lovely crystal ball.

I have writing imps who fill my brain with lots of lovely scenery, then disappear into the trees to laugh and giggle while I struggle to figure out which scene to use where. Because I learn about story and character as I write, I usually dump tons of information into the opening that doesn’t need to be there. So once I’ve decided on an opening scene, I have to sit down and squeeze all my perambulations out of the verbiage until I reach the essence, then rebuild again to form the picture I want.  Or throw it all out and start over, which I’ve done more often than I care to count.

But as beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, so does the idea of what is essential for an opening.  I adore writers who can write great opening lines like: “Hughes got it wrong, in one important detail.  You will have read, in TOM BROWN, how I was expelled from Rugby School for drunkenness, which is true enough, but when Hughes alleges that this was the result of my deliberately pouring beer on top of gin-punch, he is in error.  I knew better than to mix my drinks, even at seventeen.” (George MacDonald Fraser, FLASHMAN)  Doesn’t that give you an immediate picture of Flashman?

Or how about an immediate picture of story:  “My lady, Fiammetta Bianchini, was plucking her eyebrows and biting color into her lips when the unthinkable happened and the Holy Roman Emperor’s army blew a hole in the wall of God’s eternal city, letting in a flood of half-starved, half-crazed troops bent on pillage and punishment....” (IN THE COMPANY OF THE COURTESAN by Sarah Dunant)  If you don’t keep reading after that line, you must know the book already!

Openings like those are an art form and convey the voice of the book in hopes of catching the attention of readers who appreciate that particular style.  Which is why EVIL GENIUS begins with the line: “My name is Ana, and I’m a doormat. I’m also one of the best virtual assistants in the world, if you’ll pardon my modesty.”  Her conflict is her character! That’s so me.

What are some of your favorite opening lines?

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Book View Cafe presents free excerpts of several of Patricia Rice’s novels (including Evil Genius) at her BVC Bookshelf.

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Craft: first pages — 4 Comments

  1. Favorite opening lines from my books, or others? I’ll begin with a few from authors whose work I admire:
    “”He had maybe a minute to live.” Karen Robards, NIGHT MAGIC
    “The first time Tara Chance was ordered to murder a man, it was as a favor to the CIA.” Greg Rucka, A GENTLEMAN’S GAME
    “It was the cicadas that pushed everything into critical mass. The cicadas and a paranoid schizophrenic.” Eileen Dreyer, WITH A VENGENCE

    And, I’ll add one of my own: “His name was Cain and everyone in the Sierras feared him.” SUNDANCER

    You have a doozie of an opener, Pat. Really sums up character and sucks the reader in, just what we always strive to do!

  2. LOL, Shirl, you’re not too shabby yourself. “G” Those are great lines. It’s amazing how much can be said about a book from just that opening.

  3. “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” I CAPTURE THE CASTLE Dodie Smith

  4. My book Hidden Fires: “He had spent a hundred years seeking the woman called Silver; he still didn’t know if he was going to kill her.”

    And my book Night Calls: “I wasn’t there when Papa killed the wolf. But then girls usually aren’t allowed to hunt them.”

    I am very fond of the opening of Kindred Rites, too, but it is a short sentence, followed by a paragraph of expansion, and bookend-ed by another short sentence. I’m pleased with it!

    One of my favorites by another author is the first line of Roger Zelazny’s Trumps of Doom — not his best book, but a brilliant opening scene. I can’t find my copy right now, so this is a paraphrase: “It’s a pain in the ass waiting around for someone to try and kill you.”

    It goes on to explain that it’s April 30th, and every year, like clockwork, someone takes a try at him. It took a while to figure it out, of course, but finally Merle realized that probability was working overtime in his ballpark.

    If you spot it on the shelf, read the first scene. A master at work! (This is #6 of Amber, whatever its actual name is, the first Merlin book.)

    A great thing about the first line of Evil Genius is that Ana is both of these things, and yet so much more. But we have to wait for her (and the world) to discover it.