It’s safe to say that the last Page Critique Thursday was one of the more controversial Page Critiques in our history.
Some people loved the first line, and were confused and a tad horrified I suggested removing it.
Now, part of my reaction was undoubtedly completely subjective and was inevitably influenced by my own personal taste and should be taken with huge heapings of salt. Because I definitely understand that quite a few people love openings like this first line in question. They want to be hit with something clever and pithy and thought provoking, and it makes them want to read more. That’s totally fine! Honestly. Knowing what you like is an incredibly important step.
My own feeling is that while pithy, high concept opening lines often show a great deal of promise, they can sometimes enter a zone where they feel like a grape that has yet to be plucked. A really tasty apple in a pie that hasn’t yet gone in the oven. In other words: A great start, but not yet baked into the story.
Speaking generally, when there’s a pithy first line that stands alone and is wholly separate from the next paragraph and the flow of the story, they can sometimes feel more like a tag line than the start a novel. They advertise the plot and premise and the author’s cleverness, but it’s not really the beginning of the story. The hand of the author can feel a bit too present.
In order for a pithy or clever first line to work for me, the most important thing is that it fits naturally into the flow of the opening. It’s not a non sequitor, it’s not out of step with what the main character is thinking or feeling at that moment, it doesn’t just exist for the sake of being clever, it doesn’t feel forced. There’s a reason that we are getting that first line at the time we’re getting it. What follows that first line builds off that thought rather than leaving it dangling there as a teaser.
For instance, Jeff Abbott’s Fear starts with a high concept first line. “I killed my best friend.” It doesn’t get much more high concept and catchy than that. But what follows is the context for that line: “Miles stared at the words, black in their clean lines against the white of the paper. First time to write the truth. He put the pen back to the pad. I didn’t want to kill him, didn’t need to kill him. But I did.“
Jeff didn’t just leave that first line dangling, it’s woven into the narrative. There’s a reason we’re getting it there, and it all builds together in such a way that the line sucks us into the story rather than leaving us wondering what happened to that line.
I often compare openings to a trust fall. If you’re going to execute a very daring maneuver with the opening, it’s so so necessary to catch the reader afterward. And the way to do that is not just by wowing the reader with an opening (though that’s undoubtedly a great start), but by integrating that cleverness into the flow of the story.
Build off that cleverness. Take that idea and then dial it up a notch by weaving it into the narrative. When it’s an integral part of the story and feels perfectly natural, the idea will be that much better.