Podcast

324 – Opening Lines

The Mythcreant Podcast

Due to the linear nature of spacetime, stories have to start somewhere. The first line is, by definition, a reader’s first encounter with your story, but is it really as important as all that? Yes and no. This week, we’re talking about opening lines. We discuss what an opening line should do, how to tell if one is working, and how important they really are. Get ready for a lot of quotes.

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

Four Functions of an Amazing Opening Line

Elantris

Winter World

Peter Pan and Wendy

Gideon the Ninth

House of Earth and Blood

The Maze Runner

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

Pravda

Interview With the Vampire

The Book of Three

Coraline

The Helsing Trilogy

Eldest

The Name of the Wind

Area X

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Transcript

Generously transcribed by Bellis. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

[Intro Music]

WES: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Mythcreants Podcast. I’m your host Wes and with me today is…

CHRIS: Chris

WES: And…

OREN: Oren.

WES: And I gotta be honest. I spent quite a while writing some stuff down on my podcast notes, thinking what would be a really strong opener to this podcast. [laughs] But then I realized that it is just hard. And maybe that’s the point: A good, solid opening first sentence is really hard to write. [laughs]

OREN: See, that’s why I always go with puns because no one ever accuses those of being high effort.

WES: That’s a good point.

CHRIS: [laughs] And it’s like the worse the pun is, the better?

WES: Somehow, yep.

CHRIS: Somehow?

OREN: You can’t have a pun that’s actually funny, that defeats the entire point of a pun.

[laughter]

WES: So today we’re talking about opening lines. Maybe sticking with that first sentence of a story, maybe going a little further into that first paragraph, because sometimes you got to treat it as a whole. But this is a common topic, readers, writers, everybody seems to understand that there’s a lot of emphasis and importance placed on that first line in the story and its ability to draw a reader into the work, compel them forward.

You know, it’s not everything. I mean, I often just kind of breeze by them. The thought that I would read the first sentence and throw the book across the room because it didn’t meet my expectations– I’ll give it a few pages.

But that being said, I think that there are good examples of strong openers. And I wanted us to kind of build on Chris’s criteria from that good post on four straighforward functions of opening lines. And maybe try to get at the core of what is a good opening line and does it meet the criteria that I think they all should do?

And I think Steven King put it pretty well and he’s like “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

And I was like, yeah, that’s pretty much what it is. The best opener’s like “Hey, keep reading.“

[laughter]

CHRIS: Yeah. The primary job of the opening sentence is to get the reader to read the second sentence.

WES: Yup. Very much.

OREN: The way that I see it is that opening lines are not going to make or break the book. Very few people are going to stop on just the opening line. But if the opening line is good, it will set the tone and start readers off enjoying the story instead of starting them off being like, “Huh?”

And that makes it much more likely that they will have a smooth ride through the rest of the story. It’s like how, if you’re starting a race, the race isn’t over when you take your first step across the starting line, but if there’s a rock in your way that trips you and your first few starting steps are awkward and flailing cause you’re trying to recover from being tripped by that rock, you’re going to have a much less pleasant time on the race. [hesitantly:] And I guess have a longer reading time… This analogy is getting away from me a little bit.

[Chris laughs]

WES: I mean, it was good for a little while. [laughs] Strong start, Oren.

OREN: It had a good opening line, you could say.

[laughter]

WES: I think for me there’s something that helps me get past the hurdle of starting a book if the first line is good. Because more often than not, when I sit down to read, I’m actually kind of tired. It’s almost bedtime. And I was like, “Oh, maybe I’ll start this”. And that is where I either get dosed with energy or I just get put straight to bed and it’s like, okay, maybe I’ll like this, but I can’t be tired when I start it because it’s not a compelling beginning.

CHRIS: I think it’s good to keep in mind how much effort is involved on the reader’s part. We’ve talked before about the fact that it just takes a little work to read as opposed to watch something and how that puts more burden on narrated, written stories to be entertaining. But also the first sentence and the first paragraph can just be extra work because you have no idea what’s happening. You have no context. And so there’s also a lot of figuring out that happens.

And a lot of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen in opening sentences and opening paragraphs is just not making it easy for readers to figure out what’s going on. It doesn’t– You want to be creative and that can add novelty and make your opening lines appealing. At the same time, you have to be careful because sometimes if you go too far, you can easily make it disorienting and add a little bit of confusion in there that just makes it extra work for the reader.

WES: Especially if your first few sentences are just a list of expletives. [laughter] Like I’m sorry, the novelty of that is long past if it ever was there. [laughs]

OREN: I’ve noticed a very interesting difference in the experience of reading a book with your eyeballs versus listening to it on audio. And it’s sort of the difference between walking through an area and moving through an area on a conveyor belt.

And if you’re walking through an area and there’s all kinds of debris and stuff in the way and branches getting at you, okay, you’re going to stop. Or you’re going to slow down and it’s going to be harder to keep going. And that’s what reading is like. So if you get to one of those patches where things are confusing or whatever, it’s just harder to keep going.

But with audio, it keeps going regardless. That conveyor belt is taking you through there. So you end up getting smacked with branches and squirrels jump on you, presumably. I’ve never read in the forest. [laughter] So with audio books, you don’t stop or slow down even – and you can go back, but that’s hard – so generally you just keep going and you’re just like, “What was that, what just happened?” [laughter] So I find that an interesting comparison.

WES: So Chris, remind us all of those four good functions of an opening line.

CHRIS: Yeah. So basically some of them are just creating a hook, right? I talked about suggesting conflict, we could say conflict or tension. Which is usually, you put the character in what sounds like a very critical situation.

You don’t have to introduce the main character, but a lot of times opening sentences do include the main character and their problem, which I think is a great way to start because then you get the bonus of introducing the main character. I’ll give you an example. This is from Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris: “Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.”

WES: That’s great. [laughs] That’s so good.

CHRIS: So, we have an obviously big problem. And we know who our main character is. So that’s tension right away.

Or for instance, this one is from Winter World: “For the past five months, I have watched the world die.”

WES: Aww, that’s a very sad one.

[laughter]

CHRIS: That one almost is going a little too far in that it seems gloomy. That makes it seem like there’s no way, cause it’s too large in scope, for the protagonist to turn the situation around. But that’s basically one way to do it. We introduce problems. Conflict, tension, curiosity! This is raising questions.

Normally, when I’m talking about storytelling, I actually discourage a lot of storytellers from emphasizing curiosity too much. Not that curiosity is bad. It’s good. But they tend to make choices where it comes at the cost of other things that are more essential, like evoking emotion or caring about the main character. Instead it’s like “Ah, the main character is mysterious.” Because curiosity, it just doesn’t last very long. It’s very novelty based. But for an opening sentence it actually works really well because you’re just trying to get them to read the first paragraph. So an intriguing opening sentence that creates curiosity is a great way to go.

My favorite is this opening of Peter Pan and Wendy: “All children, except one, grow up.”

OREN: Hmmmm.

WES: Yeah.

CHRIS: It’s just an intriguing statement.

WES: It is.

CHRIS: Like, wait, that one child doesn’t grow up? What’s up with that?

OREN: What’s up with that one child? I wonder who it could be…

WES: It’s that little vampire girl.

[laughter]

OREN: Yeah. Or does it mean that one guy who’s still really immature that I knew from high school. [Wes laughs] It’s like, I swore he was going to grow up and he never did. [laughs]

CHRIS: Another form of novelty is setting the atmosphere. I do think that this takes a lot more effort though than other methods, than creating enough conflict and tension and generate interest. Some books focus on atmosphere, but you really have to be creative if you are going to do that, to make it interesting enough to draw them in.

OREN: I have an example of an opening line that does pretty well at setting atmosphere. And this is from Gideon the Ninth: “IN THE MYRIADIC YEAR OF OUR LORD—the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death!—Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.”

And I love this opening line. This was the best opening of the opening lines that I copied down to talk about if we have extra time. Because first of all, it just sets the irreverent tone of the story. It’s like “THE MYRIADIC YEAR OF OUR LORD”, and then explains what that means. And he calls him the “kindly Prince of Death”. It’s like, whoa. And Gideon has: sword, shoes and dirty magazines! Okay. That tells us something about Gideon and what her priorities are. And it also tells us a little bit about what the general setting is. Cause it’s fantasy-ish, cause there are swords, but also kind of modern because there are dirty magazines, which is not really a historical fantasy type thing.

WES: Ye olde woodcuts. [laughs]

OREN: Yeah.

[laughter]

OREN: I mean, maybe they’re just erotic woodcuts, but that’s not really what you would mean by magazine. So it communicates the combination of fantasy themes with scifi and modernisms that Gideon the Ninth has – for better or worse, I have mixed opinions on them – but they are there in the opening. It tells you what it’s going to be right there. No one can accuse this book of hiding what it is.

And it also tells you about Gideon: That she’s trying to escape.

CHRIS: Right. Which is conflict, actually, she has to escape from something.

OREN: I love this opening line. I think this opening line is very good. I read it and I was like, yeah, I can see why a lot of people liked this and decided to read the next line.

CHRIS: I have to say, though, I do feel like that opening line is just a touch misleading because she doesn’t escape. She doesn’t actually escape.

OREN: That’s a fair point. It is a bit of a lie. She does not actually escape.

CHRIS: It’s a pet peeve of was mine when opening lines lie. We really want them to work really bad and I know that maybe for some, in some cases it pays off. It’s like, well, it was a lie, but the audience was so engrossed in the story they didn’t notice later that it was a lie. I still don’t like it. [laughs] Okay.

OREN: Admittedly I, in my head, translated that to “try to escape from the house of the Ninth”, because I read the book so I know what happens. So I think that’s why I didn’t notice that, but it’s a good point.

CHRIS: It’s not as bad as some. For instance, this opening line from House of Earth and Blood: “There was a wolf at the gallery door.”

WES: Right, this one. [sighs and laughs]

CHRIS: This is a pretty good opening line when you first look at it. It’s intriguing, it arouses curiosity because there’s a wolf at the gallery, but then it turns out as you read on: neither wolf, nor gallery. [laughter]

Shortly after this you find out the wolf is a woman. And it’s very disorienting. Again, the reader’s just trying to figure out what is happening in your first paragraph. And then it’s very distracting. Cause I kept asking the question, so is she a werewolf? Is that why you called her wolf? And then the gallery is this big library installation that I guess has some art in it, but definitely not a gallery, I would say.

OREN: Right. And it’s extra confusing because this book can’t communicate clearly. It’s hard to tell, but the part that is referred to as the gallery is this small upper area, which isn’t a gallery either. It’s more of a place where people come when they want to buy stuff. I don’t remember if there’s any art even displayed there, but it’s a very small space. Like the book makes the point of that. So it doesn’t sound like a gallery. And then underneath that is a giant library, and that’s where the protagonist actually is most of the time. And that’s what you assume it’s talking about when it mentions the gallery door. It’s all very confusing. And eventually you figure out that this character is a werewolf. And she’s called a wolf, but when you say a wolf, it suggests an actual animal, like something at least in the shape of a wolf, not a person who can turn into a wolf if she wants to.

CHRIS: I would accept it if she was a werewolf, but she was also metaphorically a wolf. Cause that means somebody menacing.

OREN: I guess she’s a cop.

[laughter]

CHRIS: She’s the protagonist’s best friend, okay. She’s not metaphorically a wolf. [laughs]

Here’s a more subtle one that I still found somewhat disorienting, but I can see how– Especially when you’re writing these sentences, you know what you mean, and so it can be a little hard to catch when they do too much. But this first sentence from The Maze Runner: “He began his new life standing up, surrounded by cold darkness and stale, dusty air.”

I find that disorienting because what does beginning his new life mean? And it almost makes you think of birth, but he’s standing up and I don’t think he was born standing up. And then if it’s metaphorically his new life then saying he’s standing up is completely unremarkable, right? [laughs]

WES: I began my new life by opening my eyes and breathing. Great. Like, were you dead?

CHRIS: It’s a normal thing for people to do, much of the time, is standing up. So it just leaves you wondering, is this literal, is this metaphorical? What does it mean exactly? So that I would consider to be a disorienting first line.

OREN: Okay. So if you want to see a disorienting first line, may I present The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress: “I see in Lunaya Pravda that Luna City Council has passed on first reading a bill to examine, license, inspect—and tax—public food vendors operating inside municipal pressure.”  What.

WES: I fell asleep. I… [sighs]

OREN: Yeah, what?

[laughter]

WES: I’m gonna stand up and begin my new life.

[laughter]

OREN: Like, okay. If you know what Pravda is that could suggest that there’s some kind of social unrest, because Pravda is the name of a famous communist newspaper. But if you don’t know what Pravda is, there’s nothing in that sentence. It does tell you that you’re on the moon. I’ll give it that much. But there’s nothing in there to indicate whether this reading is good or not. Like, is it good that they passed on it? Is it bad? Who knows. Why does any of this matter? It’s your opening line and you’re starting off with the taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems.

CHRIS: Sometimes with these older books what’s happening is, it had novelty at the time it came out. So at that time, talking about city ordinances on the moon, and that contrast might have been enough to make that a really interesting opening line. And it’s not anymore. Just like with Interview with a Vampire. The book probably had a lot more novelty when it came out because there wasn’t tons of angsty vampires in all of our books. [laughs] And it goes into great detail about what life as a vampire is like. And that was unusual at the time.

OREN: It’s funny because the second line, which I originally actually thought was part of the first line because the first line has so little context, is: “I see also is to be mass meeting tonight to organize “Sons of Revolution” talk-talk.” [laughter]

Which is like, what?

WES: Oh boy.

CHRIS: It was probably not intended to be funny, cause this is not a comedy.

OREN: But that’s how the characters talk. They have this weird I guess moon dialect or whatever that just sounds very silly. And I always recommend that unless you have a compelling reason to do otherwise that you write your story in fairly standard English. Now there are compelling reasons to do otherwise, there are many dialects of English that are perfectly legitimate for storytelling. But I don’t think inventing a new moon dialect is one of them. I don’t think that is worth the confusion of trying to figure out what that sentence means. Cause what it sounds like if you read it, what is a talk-talk other than a meeting? So they’re having a meeting to organize a meeting. Is that what that means? Have we reached that level of recursiveness?

[laughter]

CHRIS: So, Wes, did you want to…?

WES: I have a few good ones that I think succeed due to brevity. So I’ll go through a few kind of getting a little shorter as I go. One from Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, it begins with: “Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horse-shoes.”

OREN: Aww.

WES: I love how much that says with giving you so little.

CHRIS: It’s great characterization.

WES: It’s wonderful. And we get two characters, easily introduced and we get a strong look at both of them in this one line. And there’s even this idea of the atmosphere of what we’re stepping into. Obviously if you looked at the cover of the book, you know that it’s high fantasy, but the idea of just “a sword, but horse-shoes”– You might immediately go in your mind’s eye, to okay, smithy or rural smithy even, with the horse-shoe component, not city industrial smithy who only makes weapons, that kind of stuff. So I feel like there’s a lot that you get to fill in yourself as the reader with just some very basic words in a pretty compact sentence.

OREN: There’s also just a very strong characterization in, “I want to make a sword!” – “Nuh-uh: horse-shoes.”

[laughter]

WES: Yep.

OREN: It’s just really great. It really sets the tone for that character. He does eventually get a sword, but it takes a while.

[laughter]

CHRIS: He has to be assistant pig keeper for a while first.

WES: Yes. I like how that happens shortly thereafter. Cause he’s just like, “Ugh, but I need to do something cool!” And he’s like, “Okay, have a promotion: You’re the assistant pig keeper.” [laughs]

CHRIS: It’s a great example of how giving your characters spinach at the beginning [Wes: Yes] helps readers sympathize with them and bond with them.

OREN: That story taught me to expect promotions that have increased responsibility, but not increased pay. Ba-dum-tsh!

[laughter]

WES: Oh no.

Another good one, it’s a little shorter, that does a lot of the same things, is from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. And the first sentence is: “Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house.” And I love the contrast with, you discover a door in a house. Like there’s doors in houses. But it’s the door. And suddenly I’m just like, okay, what’s going on? I need to know what’s going on with this door. Houses have doors, what’s going on?

And I like the verb there, ‘discovered’ as the first verb in a story is good because it sets the tone. The whole point of Coraline is she’s an explorer. And so she’s– The first thing she does in the entire story is discover this door that takes her on further adventures for exploring and trying to find things in that other world that she stumbles into.

CHRIS: In the book is the door a little door like it is in the movie?

WES: Yeah, I think so, yeah.

CHRIS: Yeah. I think it’s a good line that creates curiosity. The only thing is, I think that if he had managed to work in that it was a little door…?

WES: “… discovered the little door”?

CHRIS: I’m not going to rewrite this nice sentence [laughs] addlibbing on the podcast. It might take more finesse than just adding the word ‘little’ before door, but I think if he was able to communicate that the door was an unusual door, like it was a little door, not a full-sized door, I think that would have added some additional intrigue and curiosity.

WES: Yeah, a little bit. Because definitely the ‘the’ is carrying a lot of weight: ‘the door’. Having ‘little’ would help emphasize the specialness of the door. I think, yeah, that’s a good point.

CHRIS: It’s something that’s again, novel and unusual that the door is little and not a normal size, not a full sized door.

OREN: Does he do anything fancy with capitalization there, is door capitalized?

WES: No, no, it’s not.

OREN: I’m not saying it would have been better if he had, I was just wondering.

WES: I transcribed that in my notes and then I was like, is that, should that be? And I looked back in the book, and oh no, it’s just, okay– [laughs] Fine. Just a basic door, I guess, in spelling.

I’ll just share one more quick one and we can talk about a few others, there’s a few other good ones, but I like this one from book two in the Greta Helsing trilogy by Vivian Shaw. The first book and the third book had like meh openers, but I really liked this opener to Dreadful Company: “There was a monster in Greta Helsing’s hotel bathroom sink.”

CHRIS: Oh, that’s good. That’s really good. That’s very good.

WES: Very good. It’s very good. [laughs]

CHRIS: Okay. So she has a monster in her sink, which suggests a problem. It fits in a sink, which is really intriguing. And we’ve introduced the main character and we know that she has a hotel. That’s a great opening line.

WES: She’s somewhere new. Yeah. It was a good book too. I forget how I stumbled on the Greta Helsing books, but basically Greta Helsing is a medical doctor, but she treats supernatural and undead creatures. So she’ll do like bone replacements for mummies and like special diseases that affect ghouls and things like that. So it’s pretty fun if you want to nerd out on a lot of kind of funny medical jargon with a bunch of monsters. [laughter]

I do like that you pointed out the monster in the sink part. Cause there’s the premise of some conflict, some questions. And then you go into, “Oh, it’s a well monster, well monsters like wet places and they like to steal shiny things.” [laughs] Like it’s so cute, I can’t stand it.

OREN: That was some really good information density that just tells you what you need to know. And it’s not weird or confusing.

WES: I like that since it’s using a ‘to be’ verb it’s just a statement. There’s no action. It’s just like, you can’t ask for a better way to set the scene and let the reader take anything they want from it. Cause they’re not being directed on how to view it, which is just brilliant. I think it’s really tight.

CHRIS: The other thing that I notice sometimes happens, and this could cause disorienting or misleading sentences is when writers can really mess up their sentences just by trying too hard. And one of the ones that I think is the funniest is the opening line of Eldest, which is the sequel to Eragon.

WES: Oh boy.

[laughter]

CHRIS: “The songs of the dead are the lamentations of the living.”

WES: What?

CHRIS: What is this supposed to mean? Because there are not literally undead singing in this setting. [laughs] So as far as we know the songs of the dead are people singing about the dead, living people singing about the dead, which is usually a lamentation. So it’s just saying lamentations are lamentations. That is the actual– if you were to translate what it means, that seems to be what it’s saying.

[laughter]

OREN: So we’re having a meeting to organize a meeting. It’s good that this is following in the literary footsteps of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. [laughter]

What’s funny is that you can also interprete it another way that is way cooler, but also not what’s in the setting, which is if the undead are–or the dead–if the dead are singing and that causes bad things to happen with humans, or with the living, so lamentations. That would be interesting. It’s like the dead are singing and their songs are dangerous. That’s not what it means though. [laughs]

CHRIS: Yeah. I mean, obviously it would still be disorienting and unclear if that were the first sentence of the first book. That would be cool, the setting does not have undead doing that. It opens on a battlefield and the main character is supposed to be thinking this, but he would not think this. [laughs] So it’s both very contrived and kind of disorienting and kind of nonsensical and the writer is clearly just “See, isn’t it deep?” Um, I’m sorry. You’re using fancy wording, but it’s not actually deep.

[Wes laughs]

OREN: Well, if we’re talking about fancy wording that’s not really deep, I have to mention The Name of the Wind.

WES: Oh gosh, yes, do it.

OREN: I am required by law. [laughter]

Okay, I’m going to cheat a little bit and go with the first two sentences. Cause I don’t really think that the first one works by itself. First sentence: “IT WAS NIGHT AGAIN.” Second sentence: “The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.”

WES: [weary] Oh my gosh.

OREN: I actually liked the first part of that, “It was night again”, I think is actually a good opening line. And it kind of feeds into this idea that Kvothe is dying by being a bartender in this town. I don’t really know why, they don’t really explain that, but they sort of say that he is, so it’s supposed to be like, it communicates drearyness.

CHRIS: It’s not a hook in itself, but it’s also very short, right? So it’s not a bad way to lead into the second sentence.

OREN: Although, it’s funny because a lot of books do a little bit of capitalizing the first few words, for some reason. And in this one, it just happened to be that the capitalization was that entire sentence, which gave the impression that it was being yelled.

[Wes laughs]

CHRIS: It’s like some form of drop cap. And so for–

OREN: That’s not the line’s fault. It was just a weird quirk of publication. The second part, though, that is a lie. There is no silence of three parts. It goes in to explain what that means and it just means the inn is quiet. And he just picked three things that were quiet and called them the silence in three parts.

CHRIS: Right. And so it’s intriguing, but it’s promising something that he can’t actually deliver.

OREN: Right. When it said silence in three parts, I was expecting some kind of magic. Because that’s not how silence normally works, right? There are not sources of silence, things either do or don’t make noise. And so I was expecting there to be something going on that was weird, but instead it was just like, no, okay, so these guys over here are drinking kind of quietly, and the bartender is cleaning a glass kind of quietly, and there’s no wind outside and that’s also kind of quiet. So, boom, three parts.

[laughter]

WES: …to make a whole silence.

OREN: And it’s not even that silent, is the other thing. These people are still drinking. That still makes noise. It’s not even that silent.

CHRIS: Also, we need to be done with silence and opening books now. It’s just– [laughs] I think there’s just so much emphasis on “Oh no, things are creepily silent”. I think we should probably look for other ways to make things creepy. Not that we should never use it, but it’s definitely getting an air of being clichéd.

OREN: I’m sure there’s a think piece out there somewhere about how that’s why this opening is brilliant, because it’s making fun of the cliché of silence being creepy, because it’s actually not creepy. And it’s like, yeah, for sure. I’m positive one of those think pieces exists right now. [laughs]

WES: You are right though, Chris, it’s so unnecessary to point out that there’s no noise.

Just one last example that I had was the opening line to Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer’s book, and the line reads: “The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats.”

I don’t anticipate there being a lot of noise there, but I’m creeped out and he didn’t tell me that it’s weirdly quiet. [laughs] I’m just like, okay. Of course that clause ‘which was not supposed to be there’ is really taking an otherwise kind of creepy forest and adding an entirely new dimension. But…

CHRIS: Yeah, that’s the phrase that really stands out.

I would choose to make that opening sentence shorter. Long sentences can be very beautiful and lyrical, but because the reader’s ability to understand the first paragraph is already kind of, it’s already very difficult sometimes because they’re trying to get the context and figure out what’s happening. Just again, increasing the ease of reading and ease of comprehension in that first paragraph I think is important. And I think the sentence, that beginning without that last ‘and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats’ already sets the mood and atmosphere and scene well enough. I would choose to shorten it just to ease up on the kind of cognitive burden for the reader a bit.

OREN: You can’t cut the marsh flats! That’s my favorite part. [laughter] I love the marsh flats. I will leave an angry comment about that. “Cut the marsh flats”, how dare you. [laughs] [laughter]

WES: Chris does have a point though. “Forest begins to give way to swamp and marsh flats” that accomplishes a lot of the same. You lose wind-gnarled trees though, and I love wind-gnarled trees.

CHRIS: Well, you could keep wind-gnarled trees and get rid of something else instead.

WES: Oh no! [laughs] [laughter]

CHRIS: The point is that if you’re going to have a first sentence and it’s going to be that long, it should really need to be that long. For instance, when we went back to the Gideon the Ninth first sentence, there was a reason why that sentence was that long. It was trying to accomplish a specific purpose and it really, for the most part, needed that many words to do that.

This sentence seems like it’s longer than it needs to be, which just increases the cognitive burden. And it’s better not to do that.

WES: Yeah. People are stepping into your book and story for the first time. Don’t put a lot on that first sentence. We’ve shared several good examples today that can fulfill, set the atmosphere, raise questions, provide some tension or conflict, introduce a character and there’s fewer than 15 words, you know? So you can do this and probably simpler is generally better. And then save your lyrical prose for, I dunno, chapter two or whatever. [laughs]

CHRIS: Yeah. In this case, I would also have to say, since what’s really intriguing about the sentence is the tower that’s not supposed to be there, I would almost worry about going on too long setting the scene, that the reader would almost forget the tower. Which, that’s the thing that’s intriguing so the focus really should be there.

OREN: Okay, well, that sounds like a pretty good place to end the story. I’m still sad about the mudflats having to be– or the marsh flats having to be cut. That just– You can’t take away my marsh flats, Chris!

But those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. Now, before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, he is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo, she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week. [Outro Music]

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Comments

  1. AK

    “You can’t have a pun that’s actually funny, that defeats the purpose of the pun.” — Thank you for making a fellow PUNdit in arms laugh. You know the True Art of the PUN.

    Great podcast, by the way! As always, insightful and useful and hilarious. Thank you for being awesome on the internet

  2. Paul C

    Great discussion, and Chris has added a brilliant metric: Cognitive Burden. (I know she has used that before, but it really struck me this time.) You ought to trademark that. I wonder if it could be quantified — somehow compare the (perhaps too long?) Annihilation sentence with the two “mysterious” Name of the Wind sentences. Anyway, CB is a great way for me to think of my opening lines as well as all the other lines in whatever I am writing.

    I agree with your analysis of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress — more or less — but I think the title needs to be taken into account as well. The “harsh” in the title informs the “tax” in the opening sentence. The harshness of the Moon will not be merely environmental, but also governmental, and thus the Pravda reference. How much historical information can be in a sentence? Where is the CB tipping point? At some point do we wonder about “the grassy knoll” and who was “JFK” and U.S.S.R.? Yes.

    So…the CB formula will need a negative weight for historical references, adjusted for how many decades old they are: Sadly, at least for me, a big minus to Heinlein because of Pravda. Also, a positive weight for concrete words: marsh, wind-gnarled; for mysterious words: Prince of Death, “the tower”…

    Is a “silence of three parts” mysterious, or is it undefined, like a square circle? I mean, you can say the words “square circle,” but together they are meaningless (sort of applying logical positivism to the CB formulary here).

    Ah well, something to work on this weekend.

    • Bellis

      There are actually theories about how much of a cognitive burden readers or learners in a classroom setting can take and one that clicked with me was: One connection at a time. A connection consists of a fact and how it relates to already known facts and is easy enough to grasp that it works when people aren’t paying rapt attention. That however presumes that there is some foundation to connect to, of course.

      As an example, for a reader of The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress in the late 1960s, “Lunaya Pravda” would immediately be understood as “We/humans are on the moon, but COMMUNISTS rule the moon!” and it would have been a conflict. To readers a couple decades later it is more of a cognitive burden because a lot of us don’t have this foundation (familiarity with cold war politics and what the Pravda was or a strong anti-communist cultural sentiment) to connect the opening line to. Even for someone with the foundation that Heinlein could assume, a shorter sentence would have been easier (maybe just mention the taxing and not the reading and inspecting and whatnot). Showing how tedious the beaurocracy is could have waited until the second sentence or even later.

      With the silence in three parts, I agree that it’s disappointing to learn that that just means there are three things/people who don’t make noise. It would have made more sense if there was a lack– maybe Kvothe wished the guests would talk or that he could bring himself to start a conversation and maybe there’s a reason to miss the howling of the wind. And in that case that should have been made clear. As it is, it’s just a quaint cozy scene, just a couple people minding their business. It’s not inherently a problem and the description “silence in three parts” doesn’t seem to fit at all, it just comes across as melodramatic because it uses fancy words without substance.

  3. Cay Reet

    Here’s one I like:

    Emulating a breathing statue, I kept my eyes at half-mastm my body still. I’d learned over the time in this dank, bat-infested cave that stillness was best. She didn’t question stillness. She sometimes forgot her victims were even there.

    That’s the first paragraph of “Magic and the Shinigami Detective” by Honor Raconteur

  4. Innocent Bystander

    I’ve run into the issue that I have a good opening line, but need to follow through on it. I had the chapter almost finished when I thought “if you say the protagonist is going to die for the first time in the opening line, you should probably have it happen by the end of the first chapter.” So now I’m rewriting the whole thing.

    As for opening lines that are great, my favorite is still the one for Jim Butcher’s “Blood Rites” in the Dresden Files: “The building was on fire and it wasn’t my fault.” It’s got immediate conflict, tells you a bit about who the protagonist is, and establishes what kind of book you’re reading.

  5. SunlessNick

    There’s also just a very strong characterization in, “I want to make a sword!”

    It also characterises the state of the setting, in that making horseshoes is treated as objectively more practical than making a sword.

    I like the opening line of Clive Barker’s Imajica: “It was the pivotal teaching of Pluthero Quexos, the most celebrated dramatist of the Second Dominion, that in any fiction, no matter how ambitious its scope or profound its theme, there was only ever room for three players.”

  6. Raillery

    “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

  7. Erynus

    I have a problem. I have TWO first lines, as i’m using a prologue. Both of them are akin to bookends, but the second is a quote from Lewis Carrol.
    “The worst face of oneself is the one that looks back to you from the surface of a pool of blood”
    And
    “You can get to anywhere if you just walk enough”

    • Bellis

      These two lines have really really different tones and atmospheres. The first is bleak and intense and makes me expect a book with lots of graphic violence, the second one is optimistic and almost naive. It makes me expect a book with a feel-good and hopeful message and a happy ending. Of course you might subvert these expectations. But maybe pick the one that fits your overall tone best.

  8. Dave L

    Here’s a line, inspired by your Eldest discussion

    The dead were quiet, for the third night in a row

    • A Perspiring Writer

      Okay, that one’s pretty cool. Makes me want to know more; and really, isn’t that the best kind of opening line?

  9. Star of Hope

    If I want to start an opening line, can I still use the “Once upon a time, in a far away land” line and continue with a brief explanation for the place the story takes place like this:
    “there is a Kingdom by the name of Camelot, where peace and prosperity rules under the kingship of Uther Pendragon, who is blessed with a strong and capable son called Arthur. A young Man whom’s skills and wit are only outmatched by his kindness and inexperience. This boy has now been coming of age and wants to prove his worth as a knight and future King in the upcoming tournament of Camelot, where he is going to face the strongest knights in the isle of Albion. He trains here currently on the fields outside of the Castle under the tutelage of Merlin, the greatest sorceror and warrior to have ever lived in Camelot.”

    Is this viable or did I left something out or added too much? An answer would be appreciated.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      My instinct is that it’s probably more exposition than you want or need right off the bat. It’s better to start with conflict and then, if these details are important, work them in as you go.

      • Star of Hope

        So I can cut out some part and mention and use exposition more around it rather than fully? Like mentioning who Arthur is and keep the tournament info for later?

    • Dave L

      Starting w/ “Once upon a time” could work, if this story is EXACTLY like a fairy tale, or a subversion or parody of one.

      >A young Man whom’s skills and wit are only outmatched by his kindness and inexperience.

      Is Arthur the main character? If so, I’d cut this line. This is, I think, something the reader should figure out for themself. Definitely a “show, don’t tell”

      > This boy has now been coming of age and wants to prove his worth as a knight and future King in the upcoming tournament of Camelot, where he is going to face the strongest knights in the isle of Albion.

      Is this the plot, at least the first part of the plot? Is this something we’re going to see? If so, I’d STRONGLY recommend scrapping this line. If not, then you’re making a big deal out of something that won’t matter. Again, I’d say scrap this line

      >He trains here currently on the fields outside of the Castle under the tutelage of Merlin, the greatest sorceror and warrior to have ever lived in Camelot

      Okay, depending on how the rest of the story starts, you might or might not want to keep this line, but you probably can lose it, w/o too much trouble.

      In a fairy tale, you can spend a little time establishing the background, but don’t tell us anything you’re about to show us

      Good luck

  10. Star of Hope

    But the once upon time thing is an old classic that can be kept I think and I should maybe start with dialogue a bit more early.

  11. Bellis

    I’ve found the best one. Everyone else can go home.
    John Scalzi, The Shadow War of the Night Dragons:

    “Night had come to the city of Skalandarharia, the sort of night with such a quality of black to it that it was as if black coal had been wrapped in blackest velvet, bathed in the purple-black ink of the demon squid Drindel and flung down a black well that descended toward the deepest, blackest crevasses of Drindelthengen, the netherworld ruled by Drindel, in which the sinful were punished, the black of which was so legendarily black that when the dreaded Drindelthengenflagen, the ravenous blind black badger trolls of Drindelthengen, would feast upon the uselessly dilated eyes of damned, the abandoned would cry out in joy as the Drindelthengenflagenmorden, the feared Black Spoons of the Drindelthengenflagen, pressed against their optic nerves, giving them one last sensation of light before the most absolute blackness fell upon them, made yet even blacker by the injury sustained from a falling lump of ink-bathed, velvet-wrapped coal.”

    Yes this is one sentence. (Also yes this is satire.)
    I recommend reading at least the first 3 sentences, the second being as long as the first and the third being very short.
    https://www.tor.com/2011/04/01/the-shadow-war-of-the-night-dragons-book-one-the-dead-city-excerpt/

    • Bellis

      Whoops sorry, I forgot to put a little /content notice/ there because that quote has an eye injury in it.

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