Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Revisiting The Best First Lines

A critique partner directed me back to the Samhain website to take a look at one of the first lines she really liked (Thanks, Jeanne. I liked #157, too). Addendum: #157 is now #153.

As I scanned the lines posted since I looked at the first ninety entries, I realized that just scanning the now more than two hundred first lines makes for a mini-course in good writing.

I am not comfortable pointing to specific examples of bad lines, but I will happily point to examples of great lines.

Let's talk about categories of bad lines before we talk about the great lines:

1) Poor grammar, bad sentence construction or a word or phrase used incorrectly: There's a reason why writers have critique partners. A good CP can save you a lot of embarrassment.

My experience has been that newbies use words inappropriately when they're trying too hard. They reach for something that will sound elegant and end up looking foolish.

2) Too derivative or stale: You know the ones I mean. You read the lines and thought, "Oh, come on."

Either they ripped off a well-known story, or they used a familiar plot that we've seen over and over. In romance, we often talk about the "secret baby" plot, the one in which the hero and heroine parted years earlier without his ever learning she'd had his baby. Another common plot device is the forced sexual relationship in which one or the other partner is compelled into an unwanted night together or marriage.

3) Too much: The writer tried to fit thirty pages of plot into a thirty-word sentence.

There are writers who can write wonderful lengthy sentences. However, it requires a fair amount of skill. Cramming too much into one sentence wears the reader out and causes him to lose interest. "Too much" can also refer to overwrought descriptions. Lean is usually better.

4) Blah first sentences: I'll be interested to see how Samhain approaches this. There are quite a few well-written but unexciting first sentences. Will Samhain give the writer another sentence or two to grab the reader's interest or will they simply reject those entries on the basis of that blah first sentence?

What are the hallmarks of a good first sentence?

1) Immediate tension or conflict: "I wouldn't have seen the flyer if the mailbox hadn't been on fire." Or “How the hell am I gonna explain a dead body in the middle of my lawn?”

2) Something unexpected: "The demons were playing the penny game outside Ardagh’s again." Or "Except for being dead, he looked like every other tall, dark and drunk guy in the bar."

3) Something unexpected AND humorous: "Twelve inches separated Dr. Brad Berkowitz from heaven." Or "The dog shoplifts."

4) A fresh voice or new twist on a tired subject: "Aneirin saved my life the day I met him, and saved it twice again before he finally killed me." Or "When the nightclub owner grabbed my butt for the fifth time, I turned him into a toad and walked out of the smoky, dingy club."

A comment here. I suspect fully a quarter of the entries are paranormal with most of those being vampire novels. If you're going to go with the same old/same old, you had better have a very distinctive voice to set your entry apart from the rest of the crowd.

We're about halfway through the first week of the contest. I'm really looking forward to seeing who moves on to the next round.

You can read all the first lines here.


B.E. Sanderson said...

I read some of the entries and cringed, so I'm pretty sure which ones you're talking about. I feel bad for those people. They must have thought their lines were worth entering, and yet, they really need some work. Not that my entry is all that great, but it's grammatically correct and without excess info.

Maya Reynolds said...

B.E.: Your entry is lean and mean. Depending on what Samhain's objectives are, I think you've got an excellent chance of going on to the next round.

If yours doesn't, mine probably won't either.

Stephen Parrish said...

I like both first lines (yours and B.E.'s). And although I did some cringing as well, the very first entry got my attention and made me want to read more.

Which is what a first line is supposed to do.

You both started with dialog. Some advice-givers advise not to. I gather you don't think that's good advice . . .

Maria Zannini said...

I've never been a fan of starting novels with dialog. I made an exception only once with Heinlein's book, Citizen of the Galaxy.

"Lot ninety-seven," the auctioneer announced. "A boy."

How could I not read on after that?

Maya Reynolds said...

I like books that start out by putting you into the action immediately. Dialogue does that.

I dislike long narrative beginnings. These frequently fall into the error of "telling" instead of "showing."

Just my opinion. B.E. may have a different reason.

B.E. Sanderson said...

I like using dialogue for the same reason as Maya. I've heard the rule about not using dialogue, but I figure it's not set in stone. I've read plenty of good books that start with dialogue, and they always seem to suck me right into the story. I try to do the same. =o)

B.E. Sanderson said...

They changed the numbers again, dang it. You're #97 now.

Maya Reynolds said...

B.E.: Thanks for the heads up.

I went in and looked. They took out two people who had submitted two entries and another person who was already a Samhain author plus someone who'd submitted more than one line.