Whole books are written about the first lines or first pages which must capture the agent, editor or reader’s imagination, heart, or attention. Noah Lukeman did it in January 2005 with The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. Then, in April 2007, Les Edgerton published Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go. Both books soared to success among writers, editors and agents and continue to be widely recommended. In each, the goal is clear: don’t screw up your chances by shooting-yourself-in-the-foot with grammatical mistakes, spelling errors, poor imagery, or unimaginative writing on those first lines or pages. Each author makes recommendations, gives illustrations and attempts to inspire us to better writing from that first sentence.
So, how do Lukeman and Edgerton start their books? What are their first lines?
Lukeman: “Most people are against books on writing on principle. So am I. It’s ridiculous to set down rules when it comes to art.”
Edgerton: “Why a book on just story beginnings? The simple truth is, if your beginning doesn’t do the job it needs to, the rest of the story most likely won’t be read by the agent or editor or publisher you submit it to.”
And so, they caught agents, editors and publishers with their openings.
This sort of observation is usually followed by examples from Great Literature of profound, exciting or just plain noteworthy beginnings:
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird: “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his arm.”
Lee goes on to tie the broken arm to the children’s recall of “when things started,” setting the tone and time of the story in our imaginings.
John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath: “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover.”
Steinbeck draws vivid word pictures of the advancing drought and how it will impact the families in its wake, not the least of which is the tragically flawed Joad family.
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian: “See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves.”
McCarthy potently uses repetitive language to engage the emotions: “pale and thin…thin and ragged linen shirt…rags of snow.” We are there with that child…and so is the agent, editor, publisher and reader.
Clearly, Lukeman and Edgerton are on to something…as are these classic writers. How about your first lines and pages? Do they ring with imagery, set the tone of your work, show us the beginnings of your world? Do you lasso us with emotion, show us your character, plunk us right into the action? You might check the books on your shelves or the manuscripts in your computer and see what you find in those first sentences.
I cut my first chapter out of BY GRACE a few years ago when an agent complained about the length of the mss. My “Max Perkins” of an editor(real name, Marlene Cullen) recently convinced me to restore those pages for they set the tone, showed the character and her important back story in a way that had gone missing in the modified work. The importance of finding the right first lines and pages was underscored for me.
And what about the final words of the book? What of their function? Do they “sum it up?” Entice us to look/wish for the sequel? Leave us dissatisfied, annoyed or unresolved?
I’ll take a look at “endings” at another time.