Opening Line Madness

I’m almost through with my mammoth MS revision, and now I face the horror pleasure of fine-tuning the first pages. More exactly, the opening line.

It’s gotta bite. It’s gotta grab you by the throat and drag you into the story. It has to tickle your synapses and make sweet love to your curiosity, until you ache to know more. It’s gotta do all that and still make some logical sense — ’cause I hate opening lines that are superb and pristine, yet as you read on, you realize they’re like yummy cherries on top of a pile of crap.

So because I’m entirely subjective, not to mention burned-out, I need to consult your mighty collective wisdom and submit several potential opening lines to your scrutiny. I will put up 2-3 sentences each, because I want the context to flow as well, and not just dangle isolated hooks around, with no strings attached.

Please be blunt. Slice and chop if you feel like it, or just give me your vote. I treasure every tiny bit of feedback.

Have at them!

And thank you.

*offers sacrificial goat*

Here’s the “original” opening line, from my drafts so far:

(0)         I jolt awake to an alien face shimmering before me. My brain struggles to make sense of itself in the aftermath of FTL fugue, and put my old self together again. I press my back into my egg-shaped chair and take long deep breaths, reflexively going through my drop-out routine.

All kinds of suckiness, I know. I avoided dealing with the opening for quite some time now. But no more.

Here be my brain’s contents:

(1)         The alien head hovering in front of me shakes me back to reality. The projection crackles as the alien face splits open in the middle, and a large, scarlet tongue rolls out of it in a gush of stretchy spit.

(2)         The alien waits for a reply but we’re all stumped, still dazed from the FTL fugue and unsure what to do—which is kind of stupid since we’re the welcoming committee.

(3)         Finally, first contact. But as the alien waits for my reaction, I feel my entire life collapse upon me.

(4)         I haven’t come this far only to watch some idiot ruin my chance to make a difference. As Bray replays the alien’s message, staring in shock at the disembodied head projected in the middle of our tiny deck, I gather my courage and stand up. And I need all the courage I can muster, since nothing about this first contact is the way I imagined.

(5)         This is what I’ve worked for all my life, but as the alien stares at me with bioluminescent eyes, waiting for my reaction, I feel the sweat slide down my back and realize I’m nowhere near prepared.

 

Or maybe a combination?

(6)         Finally, first contact. But as the alien stares at me with bioluminescent eyes, waiting for my reaction, I feel my entire life collapse upon me.

 

I know it’s highly advisable to at least hint at the protagonist’s core problem, the one the entire novel hinges upon, but that’s pretty damn hard to do since the plot must start slightly before the true inciting incident. And the alien she first meets is not THE alien either. So I have to resort to subtext. Did you catch a glimpse of her actual problem in the above versions?

Here’s the blurb again, maybe it helps to narrow things down:

Taryn Harber will go down fighting before she surrenders to the alien warlord invading her mind. But in her desperate struggle to regain control of her life, she finds that her tormentor has irreversibly changed her — and she has, in turn, changed him. Caught in the middle of a war, both outside and within, Taryn is forced to grow into an unexpected role and take charge of more than her own life.

Hm. Maybe this is the closest  I can get to nailing it?

(7)         Finally—first contact. But as the alien stares right through me with bioluminescent eyes,  waiting for my response, I realize that even the strongest ambition won’t survive in the face of fear.

Or is that too abstract? Too impersonal?

What am I doing wrong? Argh, I don’t know.

*bangs head against desk repeatedly*

23 Replies to “Opening Line Madness”

  1. I like 3 best, then 4. I get more of a feeling of the narrator’s personality from these; they feel more conversational whereas the others feel more formal. Of course if you’re going for formal that won’t help!

    4 has more info than 3, but I really like “Finally, first contact” as an opening line. (But I like 3 better than 6 or 7, which start the same way, because “bioluminescent eyes” feels too “formal scientific” to fit with the informal tone of the rest.)

    Hope that helps!

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  2. Opening lines are a pain. Of the versions posted, I like #4 the best. It gives me a good sense of how the main character thinks, and warns me to expect the unexpected. There is also an indication that this situation came about through hard, deliberate work, rather than a chance encounter, giving more insights into the narrator’s character.

    All the best with the polishing work.

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    1. That’s very helpful, K. Thanks a lot!
      The situation certainly isn’t a chance encounter, so maybe that “Finally, first contact” bit could be misleading…

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  3. Truthfully, I like your original best, especially that first line. It’s a good cold open that puts the reader in the same moment with the protagonist, without any context. Also, I like that, for the moment, the reader has the same amount of knowledge as the protagonist.

    The next two sentences aren’t as direct as the first, but they do show the protagonist is disoriented. I’m intrigued by the “FTL fugue” and I want to know how or why she has to “put herself back together again”.

    The last sentence is a curious one because, given the current situation (alien all up in her face), it seems that the protagonist isn’t very experienced at this FTL travel, or coming out of FTL is just crappy for everyone, the first time or the 100th time. But if you’re trying to show her vulnerability and inexperience in a dangerous situation, then that’s there big time.

    So, for me, there’s bite in the original opening, along with implied danger and vulnerability. It works for me.

    As for some of your other openings, I don’t get that this is about first contact in the blurb, but I do think the danger and Taryn’s inexperience in your blurb is very much reflected in your original opening.

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    1. Hah, you nailed the reasons I opened the novel the way I did before. “FTL fugue” happens every time you fly faster than light, and it’s horrible to everyone. So when “dropping out”, you’re basically useless, which is why having a first encounter with a technolgically evolved alien species at that precise moment (instead of how you meticulously planned it) is a pretty challenging situation.

      The story isn’t a typical first contact story at all. It does have a sort of first encounter between humans and this particularly dangerous alien race, but that’s not the focus of the story, just its trigger.

      I’ll consider keeping some of the good bits of the initial opening… Thanks, Malon. Good feedback.

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  4. I like 3 and 4 because of the glimpse into the character, but #2 makes more sense since we’re told what exactly is going on: welcoming comittee. “First contact” is too vague to care. The welcome party, on the other hand, is more intriguing, because it sets certain expectations of things to go right and wrong, IMHO. 🙂

    I would try mixing a glimpse of character with the exact situation they’re in, so I would turn things into something a bit different, like:

    “I feel the sweat slide down my back and realize I’m nowhere near prepared.”
    and then go on telling stuff:
    “The alien waits for a reply but we’re all stumped, still dazed from the FTL fugue and unsure what to do—which is kind of stupid since we’re the welcoming committee.”

    P.S. You can peruse my brain power for beta reading madness, if you like. I won’t be nasty, but I will be honest. 😉

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    1. I agree. The question is, does that ‘welcoming committee’ set the wrong expectations, since the story only begins with a first contact, but it’s not about first contact…?

      But it’s a great idea to mix the character glimpse with details about the situation.

      Thanks, Jelena. Right on the spot, as usual. 🙂

      And I might take you up on that beta-reading offer.

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      1. Well, since I’ve read the book blurb and then the first line, it is clear that the book is not about the first contact. But that’s what makes the opening interesting–I smell someone’s in trouble and I want to know what that trouble is. 🙂

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  5. I’m with Malon. The original grabs me in a way none of the others do and I think it’s a really strong opening. My only minor change would be to replace ‘my egg-shaped chair’ with ‘the egg-shaped chair’ since you’ve already used ‘my’ once in that sentence.

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  6. V, the opener is # 4. And, it is one line long. I haven’t come this far only to watch some idiot ruin my chance to make a difference. Graf break.

    Then, in that same ‘voice’ & without overstuffing with backstory, move forward. Keep it simple. I haven’t come, (or perhaps, hadn’t) raises every freakin’ question you want your reader to quest for answers, .

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    1. Thank you. That is one clear opinion. 😀
      And I agree, it’s a strong opener.

      Come to think of it… BY GOD — it DOES hint at Taryn’s core problem even if in a very subtexty kind of way.

      I’ll have to brood over that one some more. Thanks a bunch!

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  7. Number 4 does it for me for a first sentence. But I would lose the first part of the second one. Like this:
    I haven’t come this far only to watch some idiot ruin my chance to make a difference. I gather my courage and stand up. And I need all the courage I can muster, since nothing about this first contact is the way I imagined.
    We want action, not a lot of backstory. You’ve got me, so I’ll read on to find out. Love the synopsis!

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  8. The last one is perfect. It makes me want to read more. All of the previous openings I would not have read further. The first one leaves room for brief extrapolation before returning to the action. I was waiting for more info on fear as I read the last sentence. In other words, those two sentences work well to pull me in, which is quite hard to do. 🙂

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  9. In my opinion, #2 is the best. The contrast between being speechless and being the welcoming committee grabs my attention more so than any of the other opening lines. It makes me feel like I’m there in this world sharing in this incredibly awkward moment.

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    1. Cool. I picked that line from the second page (where it was in my previous draft). Seems it works well as an opening line too. I like it too, my only concern was that the focus is on the whole team, and I should theoretically focus on the protagonist. But, you know, not all writing advice is universally applicable. 😉

      Thanks for the feedback, James. Much appreciated.

      Like

  10. I like 3 because you open in medias res without any explanation or repetition and it’s in no way convoluted. First line/paragraph/page is, to me, suppose to entice us without explaining much if anything. It is there to give us enough to present the mighty question (here you have more than one question: contact, alien awaits reaction, and that’s even better) to which we need an answer, hence we keep reading.
    For what is worth. 🙂

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    1. Thanks for your input, Silvia. Yup—raising questions is the main job of the first line/paragraph/page of a novel. It’s just damn hard to decide if those questions should already go into any depth, i.e. be related to the core problem, or merely be about the hook, the interesting moment the story opens with.

      I think… they should be about the interesting moment. There’s plenty of space after that first paragraph to ask further, deeper questions.

      Thanks a lot!

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  11. Hi, Yes! opening lines can be a source of consternation… I like the idea of being oblivious to the alien at first and then quickly trying to make sense of the situtation – sort of be caught off guard… or when you over sleep for work and you have an important meeting to present at and you scramble to pull your self together… I like your story… 🙂

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