Friday, 27 May 2011

When One Word Makes All The Difference

Here's a game for you to play. Thinking about first lines, I realised what a delicate balancing act they are. Sometimes it only takes one word to be between the ordinary and the intriguing. Here are two first lines, and I've changed one word in each - can you spot it?

1. When Kalyna Beimuk married Ray Stevenson on the fourth of October 1976 she knew she was committing bigamy.

2. I inherited my brother’s life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his money. I inherited my brother’s life, and it nearly killed me.

So, do either of them grab you? They're both quite intriguing, both dealing with drama - the bigamy and the threat of death - and we'd probably have been quite happy to have written either of them.

Now read them in their correct version:

1. When Kalyna Beimuk married Ray Stevenson on the fourth of October 1976 she hoped she was committing bigamy. (Two Red Shoes by Vivien Kelly)

2. I inherited my brother’s life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother’s life, and it nearly killed me. (Straight by Dick Francis)

See how it makes a difference. The drama is still there, but on top is something unexpected. If Kalyna hopes she's committing bigamy, then what has happened to her first husband? Where is he? Is he still alive? And how can you inherit a mistress? Things yes, people no. What was going on between the brothers? What's happened to the dead brother, and how could it nearly kill the remaining one?

What both these openings do is startle the reader into asking questions. By asking questions the reader is drawn in to the story, and once a reader is drawn in, you have them hooked. Are there questions in your first lines?




6 comments:

Jim Murdoch said...

What works too is withholding information. The book I’ve just finished has this as an opening paragraph:

‘It’s official,’ Harley said. They killed the Berliner two nights ago. You’re the last.’ Then after a pause: ‘I’m sorry.’

The last what? The problem here is that the author has traded off the great opening line for a great title: The Last Werewolf. Everyone reading that opening will already know what. Now if the book had simply been called, The Last then he would have had an intriguing opening line and an intriguing title. The problem there is that the publisher would probably waste all of that with a cover that says way too much.

Debs Carr said...

I thought both were good first lines, but the actual examples were so much better simply by changing that one word. So clever.

womagwriter said...

Ooh yes, great first lines, great hooks.

Sarah Duncan said...

Jim, I love the title The Last. Has anyone used it? That's a great example of how the blurb can ruin a book. Sometimes I deliberately don't read the back in case someone tells me too much, and why I don't like Kirkus Reviews, that always give the whole plot away.

Debs, isn't it interesting how a good first line can be made great with just one word? It's a really interesting exercise to play around with books you know.

Kath, aren't they great? I have a collection of first lines that I love, it's good to know they work for others.

Jim Murdoch said...

I've just been through two dozen pages of Amazon and can't see it, so go for it. (I get a mention in the acknowledgements.)

Sarah Duncan said...

You're on...now, I've just got to write it.