Hello Darlings. Over the weekend, I spent a bit of time evaluating some of my opening passages with the intent of identifying—given the perspective of time—what worked (or didn’t).
Unlike the majority of editors and agents, I don’t believe one has to hook the reader with the first line. In fact, I think it’s a bad idea to try since the approach is so rarely successful. As a reader, I love being manipulated so long as I don’t realize I’m being taken for a ride. Sadly, the majority of first line hooks come off as über-contrived. Shouldn’t openers be organic to the story, a seamless fit? Let’s take a look at a few of mine.
…….Twelve miles of Atlantic spanned the distance between Port Clyde and Monhegan Island, one hour of pure, unadulterated nautical hell. Inside the ferry Laura B., Vivienne Jamison sat huddled in a corner, her life’s purpose reduced to not sharing her partially digested breakfast with the handful of other passengers. There was a reason the Algonquin called the island Monchiggan, “out to sea.”
…….Vivienne’s father always told her to avoid seasickness, keep her eyes on the horizon. She peered out a window as milky as a cataract and saw nothing but the violent pitch and massive green swirl of open ocean. That was the thing with her dad’s advice, it always sounded good, but when time came for practical application, it usually fell short. Not unlike the man himself.
This is from my short story “Out to Sea.” It’s one of my favorite openings because it sets the scene and the mood. If I had my choice, every story would start with scene and mood rather than action.
…….“They’re coming,” Max said from his vantage point at the front window. It didn’t matter there was no one but little Samuel to hear. Max needed to say the words aloud to make them real.
…….A pair of Gestapo agents marched up the steep, cobbled street. Behind them, two soldiers, Mausers resting on their shoulders, muzzles pointed toward heaven. They were rounding up Jews. Three days ago, these same agents took Émile Singer, the old man next door. Even then, Max knew they’d be back. He should have run.
This is from the prologue for my novel manuscript, A TWIST OF HATE. It has a “hooky” action first line, but it wasn’t intended to manipulate. “They’re coming,” captures the overarching story theme. I’m not a big fan of this opener, possibly because so many people seem to have an issue with prologues, but I still feel it was the proper way into the story.
…….Some women go to the gym first thing every morning. Others roll out of bed and take care of their families. Not Sophie Gabretti. She doesn’t do gyms, and she’s never had a family. Her days begin with the tarot.
…….She fans the deck face down across her small reading table, recites an affirmation and selects her daily guiding card. Eyes closed, she holds the card against her breast then turns it over. The card is The Tower. Pictured is a fortress, struck by lightning and consumed in flames. Bodies of the vanquished fall from upper windows.
This is a character open from the introduction to BLOOD UNDER WILL. The novel has no prologue, but it begins with Sophie and a brief explanation of The Tower card from the tarot. The first chapter has a very different opening:
…….With the exception of the two uniformed police officers on the front steps puking into evidence bags, Ellen LeeAnn Walsh’s building looked like a hundred other slightly run-down Italianate Victorians in San Francisco.
This was my first novel, and I originally opened with my protagonist waking up and walking her dog. I was immediately chastised and told I couldn’t begin a book with the character waking up—it’s against THE RULES. I went through at least a dozen openings for this story, from a prologue, to a tarot reading, to a murder, to a visit to cafe, to the protag in the shower, and I finally ended up with The Tower introduction.
Today, if I were writing this story, it would begin with my protagonist waking up and walking her dog, because the one thing I’ve learned over the years is there are no RULES there are only GUIDELINES. THE RULES exist as rules only in the closed minds of formulaic writers, unimaginative agents, and insipid editors.
What types of opening(s) do you prefer?
The action open? Setting the Scene? Character? Mood?
How do you decide which opening is right for your story?
Do you try on various “styles” to see which is the best fit?
Do you have a favorite opening? Hint: I do.