Category Archives: novel first lines

How to Build Beats and Style in Your Writing!

Found this terrific piece on cadence and beats at the sentence level on Writers in the Storm. I especially like the rhetorical devicesTypewriter and flowers guest blogger Margie Lawson provides. As a rhetorician, I’ve encountered many of these in my research, and I’ve used many, even if only intuitively, in my writing.

I’ve written about some of these in my Novel First Lines series, and in my post on the effects of commas on cadence. Meter and rhythm are powerful lures in the first lines of a book or story. For a wonderful discussion of rhythm and cadence as persuasive devices, check out Martha Kolln’s textbook (find used copies), Rhetorical Grammar.

See if you use any already—and what you can learn to use.

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Rules for First Lines of Fiction: Rule 1

Rules you don’t actually have to follow 🙂

But for fun. . . .

Now that I’ve looked at four examples I found compelling, I feel emboldened to draw some generalizations.

As I do so, I realize I’m starting to wander into territory already pretty well covered by eons of literary, narrative, aesthetic, and rhetorical criticism. I’m not about to chase down citations. I’m going to talk about the pieces of this theorizing that have resonated with me, maybe not as theory (so Don’t Panic!) but as just what seems to work for me.

Rule 1: I already said I thought compelling first lines must make a promise. But what kind of promise? For me—and this goes as far back at least as Sophocles—a promise of a world overturned.

In other words, I want to sense that I’m about to enter a place where my day-to-day expectations will be thwarted. Things WILL NOT go on as usual. I will see, traverse, a new landscape, one with volcanic fissures I must be careful not to stumble into. This rule holds even for novels that are not mystery/suspense. A Visit from the Goon Squad takes me into a disquieting place, a hotel bathroom, where what is “usual” is decidedly not going to be “usual” for me.

We read to enter alternate realities (duh). This is true even—especially—for those of us who may read the same authors, enter the same worlds, over and over. We enter that foreign world again and again, by choice. Is this escape, then? Not necessarily. I learned of many new worlds in Americanah. But these worlds were not so much worlds where I could escape my own (though I guess I did quite a bit), but rather where I could see my own world slant, in Emily Dickinson’s image: upset, overturned. That can be an unsettling experience as opposed to one that lulls.

So I want the promise that I’m going to see slant. That I’m going to have to reconnoiter to know where I am. That I may just have to get the shotgun if things get out of hand. But that in the end, I will be a native of a larger landscape than before.

Do I need a promise that order will be restored? We enter here the classical territory of the well-wrought form, where the world is purged of the scapegoat entity that disrupted it and dust settles—NOT a metaphor/cliché of abiding peace: dust is detritus, no? Indeed, I read with a firm sense of the artifice of any endings I’m going to encounter. In most mysteries, things settle, but only until the next body is discovered. In Americanah, Ceiling is invited in, but to what? More of the messiness we all experience in trying to live with each other.

As I look at that Dickinson poem, i will posit that reading fiction does “tell all the truth but tell it slant”: tell it in such a way that it’s bearable. That’s the meaning of “vicarious experience.” We experience disruptions in a form that offers the (false?) possibility that they can be resolved, that artifice is powerful enough to adjust all disproportion, smooth all curves. We enter a work of fiction with hope that, even if at the end all is still chaos, our minds can create a unified whole, a “reading.” The need for such a “reading,” a “making sense” of even the most inchoate flotsam, seems built into us—at least, into me.

I do think that such artifice is built into the first lines I find compelling. I note that each I’ve looked at is ironic, containing both the disrupted world and the world that was, but will not be possible to return to. The old days. A quiet rural county. A gymnasium. A hotel. Each of these used-to-be’s is attached to something that pokes a hole in it. I see both, side by side.

So Rule 1 for me: stand me on a cliff and let me feel the ground under me begin to crumble. Let me look down and see myself slide. Promise me a chance to build something out of the rubble, even if it’s only my own feeble creation.

That’s my Rule 1. What’s you

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Great First Lines, Part IV

It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel.

A Visit from the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan

To me, this is the most subtle first line of all, in the promise it makes, and it’s the only one of the four examples that is not, on its face, a novel of violence, mystery, or suspense. Yet, despite receiving no promise of violent conflict, I remember this as one of the most arresting first pages of a novel I had ever read–arresting and disorienting. In both those ways, this sentence is a fitting start to this arresting and disorienting book.

I say disorienting because Egan does not give us a straightforward narrative experience. A Visit from the Goon Squad is a collection of loosely linked episodes in the characters’ lives. This method is not unfamiliar to modern readers, but it still demands a relinquishing of expectations and an understanding that whatever narrative thread emerges has to be one we, as readers, invent ourselves.

The construction of this first line invites us to do some such construction. This construction is not uncommon in fiction, memoir, history. In such syntax, we are promised that we will soon know what “it” is, and what the “usual” way is. Yet there’s a hint in this grammatical choice that what we are about to be given is not unfamiliar to us. The narrator (the character? We don’t know yet) confesses to a history of experiencing whatever “it” is often enough to have a “usual” expectation of what is to follow. We’re invited to imagine that this history is somewhere behind us as well, so that we have this hint of an expectation of our own. We share a history with a character who has not yet been named; we cannot name this person, yet we share a “usual” history, and somewhere low in our souls we feel we should know what “it” is. And this is a history that involves bathrooms in hotels. Continue reading

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Great Novel First Lines: Part 3

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

This one’s harder to analyze. Yet I think it qualifies as a terrific opening line for a haunting, even painful novel. I’m interested in how it does the work of leading me into such a book.

Two things stand out. First and simplest, “had once been” tells us that normalcy is endangered. Something staid and familiar is no more. Gymnasiums, those places that for me signify high-school PE with its silly short jumpsuits and sweaty-sock smells, Friday-night basketball games with their creaky bleachers and more sweaty smells, assemblies and pep rallies with their innocent pom-pom dances showcasing the popular girls: all no more. I see in my mind’s eye a building clawed at by vines and surrounded by crumbling brick, toppled trees, things that rustle in the overgrown grass.

There’s no reason, necessarily, to see the gymnasium this way. Except for “[w]e slept” there. Now, when do people sleep in gyms? After disasters, when the gym opens up as a shelter. So there has been a disaster, a loss. But not a recent, temporary one. In that case, the sentence would have read, “We slept in the gymnasium.” Because even after a hurricane, the gym will supposedly go back to being a gym. No, “what had once been” cuts off that line of speculation. This gym is done.

Do I think from this line that gyms in general are done? There’s such a hint, again from the fact that “we slept” there. This is a world in which people, this “we,” need a place to sleep and this is what they are given. A gym. Hard floors, cots at best, echoing barracks-like atmosphere. Moreover, we’re asked to compare this world where people sleep in gyms with a world in which “the gymnasium” is a familiar environment that doesn’t have to be explained. We all know what a gymnasium is. But “the gymnasium,” that fixture of every high-school and college campus, is not a place where people sleep.

So why do they sleep there? The novel’s promise is to tell us. What disaster of what magnitude is conjured by “had once been”?

The word “once” does work of its own: “Once upon a time.” Loooonng time ago. Once there were trees and a river (apocalyptic 1961 song from the Limelighters). All by itself, the word “once” used in this time sense speaks of things long gone and not coming back, except in dreams.

It conjures mythology as well. A time when monsters and gods roamed. The “once” referred to in this sentence, though, is not the time of gods and monsters; this “once” is ordinary time. Yet, that hint of myth gently infuses the sentence: perhaps there will be gods and monsters—if not then, now.

“We” is easy. I am teased into wanting to know who “we” are. Will I see myself in that “we” at some point? There will be a lot of us; it takes a gym to accommodate us. Alternatively, “we” could be a couple of vagabonds who have sought shelter on this ruined campus. Or “we” could be a platoon of soldiers on the march. Either way, “we” are not reposing on satin pillows, under silk sheets. We are not here by choice; the gym is not Club Med. I sense a stop along the way to somewhere more permanent for this “we,” and I both fear and want to know where the next stop will be.

It occurs to me that the word “gymnasium” and not “gym” hints at foreignness–a time with which I am not all that familiar. A time when calling things by their formal names may offer some touchstone, some anchor, in a world where expectations are adrift.

That this sentence is so short, that it doesn’t explain itself, also adds to its accomplishment. It’s a bald statement of fact that the speaker accepts. There’s no protest, no sign of a need to “show” lurid details. I’ve made the case that there’s nothing mundane in this situation, yet the speaker’s revelation could not itself be more ordinary: There was this former gymnasium and that’s where we slept. Not dozed, rested, napped. Connotations held at arms’ length. As in the first line from Paris Trout, it’s in the ordinary that we’re promised doom.

And it’s in the way the ordinary is dropped without context into this most nebulous “we” and “once,” both untethered, that the unsettling contrast emerges.

I note that I’ve been focusing on first lines of novels of suspense and mystery. That says something about my own preferences, of course. But I wrote a paper in grad school arguing that all fiction is ultimately mystery, and certainly it’s all suspense. There’s always something that has to be found out, by the characters, by the reader, and whether or not it’s found out in time is what we read to know.

But for next time, I have one that’s not a mystery/suspense novel.

What are your candidates for “best first lines”? Why?

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