Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
“You had me at the first line.” Every author dreams of hearing readers proclaim that the first line of a book grabbed them by the lapels and wouldn’t let them go. Rest assured that not only readers but also agents and editors are suckers for a great first line.
Let’s look at some winners and some sleepers and see if we can figure out what makes one beginning work and another makes the reader work to wedge his or her way into the book.
Here’s one I like: “Anybody reared on Sesame Street remembers Oscar the Grouch. How can you not love a furry green monster that lives in a garbage can and breaks into a chorus of ‘I Love Trash’ at the drop of a hat? He would be the perfect mascot for this book, and, I suggest, for our lives. Every one of us has an Oscar within, eager to muck up our world. That’s what this book is all about.” –Bill Giovannetti’s How to Keep Your Inner Mess from Trashing Your Outer World.
Bill draws us into his book by providing us with an image that we resonate with from our childhood. And the author helps us to recall Oscar by engaging our senses with words like “furry,” “green” “breaks into a chorus of.” Then we’re told that Oscar resides within us–and that’s the problem the book discusses.
Just think about all the ways this opening draws us in and sets the stage for the rest of the book. We grasp that while the topic is heavy, the writing won’t be. This will be an easy book to read, even though the content might make us squirm.
Next up: “I was sitting in a taxi wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.”
Jeannette Walls, in her masterful memoir The Glass Castle, made my eyes pop at this opening sentence. Turns out Jeannette is living a perfectly normal, successful like in New York City, but her parents are homeless in the same city–and happy to be so. This opening line, like a sharp knife, cuts to the quick of the struggle Jeannette faced in figuring out where to put all that parents, who viewed having children with the casualness of buying a banana, had put her through as a child–and as an adult.
Here’s the opening from one of my favorite novel, The Help, which depicts life for African American women in the South in the ’60s, when many of them worked in white folks’ homes, raising white babies, who would grow up to hate the black women who were like mothers to them as children.
“Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August, 1960. A church baby we like to call it. Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning.
“But I ain’t never seen a baby yell like Mae Mobley Leefolt. First day I walk in the door, there she be, red-hot and hollering with the colic, fighting that bottle like it’s a rotten turnip. Miss Leefolt, she look terrified a her own child. ‘What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I stop it?’
“It? That was my first hint: something is wrong with this situation.”
The author, Kathryn Stockett, has, in the matter of a few sentences, established the voice of one of the book’s protagonists, introduced us to her life, and shown us a conflict that weaves its way through the book–a child not loved by her mother but by the black “help.”
Now, here’s an opening that didn’t work especially well for me. It’s from Water for Elephants, a book that I came to adore, but it took time to grow on me.
“Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me, and the fry cook. Grady and I sat at a battered wooden table, each facing a burger on a dented tin plate. The cook was behind the counter, scraping his griddle with the edge of a spatula. He had turned off the fryer some time ago, but the odor of grease lingered.”
No tension exists in this opening paragraph. It sets the stage for life in the circus during the depression, but I’m not finding anything to hook me and pull me in.
The second paragraph begins to do that work, but I’m still not wowwed: “The rest of the midway–so recently writhing with people–was empty but for a handful of employees and a small group of men waiting to be led to the cooch tent. They glanced nervously from side to side, with hats pulled low and hands thrust deep in their pockets. They wouldn’t be disappointed: somewhere in the back Barbara and her ample charms awaited.”
Just as I evaluate openings in books I’m reading, so too I gauge how long it takes for me to be pulled into a manuscript. And I’m not alone in putting lots of weight on a project’s beginning; many a book lived or died based on its first page.
What openings have grabbed you by the lapels and insisted you read on? What books did you have to persist in getting involved with–or didn’t push you into the content fast enough so you abandoned reading them?
What makes a book’s first line work–or not? Click to tweet.
A book lives or dies based on its first page. Click to tweet.
How to write an eye-popping first line. Click to tweet.
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