Today, I’m being visited by Nicola Cornick. I’ve had the chance to interview Nicola for Night Owl Reviews,as well as review her new book Notorious. Click the links to check these out. Be sure to comment on her post for a chance to win a copy of Notorious.
Famous First Words – Hot Starts versus Slow Burners
A couple of months ago on one of my writing loops we were discussing hot starts, those first lines of books that grab you and draw you in right from the off. I love hot starts; maybe it’s because I can be an impatient reader, wanting something to happen, wanting to be swept away at the beginning of the book. There is a school of thought that says that modern life has trained people to have such a short attention span that if you don’t grab them within 10 seconds you’ve lost them. I’d hate to think that I had the concentration span of a gnat but maybe there is something in this.
We all want to write a first line that is so memorable that people instantly recognize it and are drawn into the story from the off. Or, as a reader, we want to be grabbed by that unputdownable page-turner. One of the most famous and most intriguing first lines of all time is: “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again…” It’s mysterious and atmospheric. It pulls the reader right in.
Here are a few of my favourite first lines, taken from books on my keeper shelf:
“She was willing to die, of course, but she had not planned to do it so soon…” Joanna Bourne, The Spymaster’s Lady.
“It had been too long since he had bedded a woman.” Lisa Kleypas, Lady Sophia’s Lover.
“She really should not be doing this. It was a terrible, imprudent idea.
But that had never stopped her before.” Laurel McKee, Duchess of Sin.
“No one noticed the man who arrived last.” Caroline Linden, What a Gentleman Wants.
Every one of those first lines makes an impact. They make the reader sit up and pay attention. They GRAB you.
In my most recent book, Notorious, I started with: “James Devlin was twenty-seven years old and he had everything that he had ever wanted.” Somehow you just know (or I hope you do) that everything is going to go spectacularly wrong for him.
A story begins at the point where things are about to change. Something is happening. There’s a mystery or a crisis. The first line raises the reader’s expectation and sets the mood and style of the book. Big newspaper stories always start with the headline, not ten pages of back story. That comes later once the reader is hooked.
One way to tackle this as a writer is to keep it simple, sharp and direct. There may be an element of danger or something unexpected. Death, birth, marriage, separation are all big life events that make the perfect moment to kick off a story. Weddings, for example, are a moment of change. And the change must be unexpected. Someone might come in and interrupt the service or the bride might run off. The wedding can’t possibly go smoothly or there is no tension.
So intriguing opening lines and hot starts are attention-grabbers. And yet in the historical novel or historical romance, and maybe in other genres too, perhaps there is also room for the slow build up. It doesn’t seem to be popular with editors to write slow-burning starts at the moment but one of my all time keepers, Daphne Du Maurier’s book Frenchman’s Creek, has twenty two pages of description before anything actually happens. It’s incredibly evocative and atmospheric; you can taste the salt on the sea breeze and feel the wind against your skin and hear the seabirds calling on the Helford estuary. And all that description contributes to the feeling that you are slipping back in time to the seventeenth century. It calls to the imagination; it envelops you and draws you in, slowly but surely. Perhaps slow burners will come into fashion again one day.
What are your favourite first lines? Are you a fan of the hot start or do you prefer a slow build up at the beginning of a book?
Be sure to check out Nicola’s website for other great books, including the rest of the “Ton” series.