Friday, May 7, 2010

Busted! Authors caught infusing first lines with conflict

Conflict (discussed in my April 16 post) is so crucial to creating reader interest that it's never too soon to introduce it. The following authors were able to suggest conflict right off the bat, in their opening sentences. Whether indicative of the story’s central conflict or some other introductory or bridging conflict, these openings pique our curiosity —Ooh, what's this?—and tip us into the story because we want more.

Each of these sentences is sprung with tension born of conflict. They are worth studying.

Jeffrey Eugenides in Middlesex (fiction):
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
Tobias Wolff in This Boy’s Life (memoir):
Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide.
John Irving in A Prayer for Owen Meany (the novel the movie Simon Birch is based on):
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
Mary Roach in Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (nonfiction):
The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship.
K.L. Going in Fat Kid Rules the World (young adult):
I’m a sweating fat kid standing on the edge of the subway platform staring at the tracks.
Jeanette Walls in The Glass Castle (memoir):
I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.
Hubert Selby, Jr. in Requiem for a Dream (fiction):
Harry locked his mother in the closet.
Ken Follett in Pillars of the Earth (fiction):
The small boys came early to the hanging.
Margot Livesey in Banishing Verona (fiction):
He had replaced five lightbulbs that day and by late afternoon could not help anticipating the soft ping of the filament flying apart whenever he reached for a switch.
Alexandra Robbins in The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids (nonfiction):
On the surface, Julie seemed to have it all.

Do you have conflict-laden first lines you'd like to share, either from books you've read or stories you've written? If so, leave them in the comments section. Thanks. (In case you can't tell, I can't get enough of them!)

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weakness? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."

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  1. Awesome examples! They really make me want to read on. In fact, I'm adding some of those to my summer reading list.

  2. Thanks Michelle. Here's a bonus example someone recently shared with me: "I come from a clan of one-breasted women." That's from REFUGE by Terry Tempest Williams.

  3. One of my currently favorite Dark tales - THE CHILD THIEF by BROM, starts with a Prologue. Now let me tell you his prologue and 1st Chapter rocks!

    1st sentence in Prologue: "It would happen again tonight: the really bad thing."

    1st sentence in Chapter 1: In a small corner of Prospect Park, in the borough of Brooklyn, New York, a thief lay hidden in the trees. This theif wasn't searching for an unattened purse, cell phone, or camera. This thief was looking for a child. (okay, I just had to write the first 3 sentences.)

  4. Light bulb time! I finally realized why I've chosen some books.
    Not to mention your post has made me look at my writing. Thank you.
    Giggles and Guns

  5. Good examples, the one from Owen Meany is great. John Irving has always been one of my favorite authors, in particular the early books; from Garp to Owen Meany >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  6. LM: Love it! Thanks for posting! The word "again" can add so much to an opening sentence. Wolff used it too, as you can see. The reader immediately feels immersed in the center of the story; it has been ongoing and you are merging at this point.

  7. Cold as Heaven: How many writers have said they can't boil down their books into a 5-page synopsis? Irving does it here in 55 words (and the hardback has 543 pages!). A synopsis as a first sentence doesn't always work, but this one sure does!

  8. Kathryn, yes, I agree.

    This is probably the best start John Irving has ever made. I often find his books damn boring the first 50 pages or so. Then it starts to take off, and when I get to the last chapters, I wish the books would never end >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  9. Great examples. I've read a few of these books, but now I want to read them all. LOL.

    Here is the first line of my novel, Play It Again, Sam:

    Sam’s breath caught in her throat and her voice broke, “John, you can’t be serious.”

  10. I'm also addicted to first sentences and use this as a blog topic from time to time. I like this one from the mystery "The Witch of Agnesi" by Robert Spiller:

    "Thursday was shaping up into one of those days that made Bonnie Pinkwater wish for a dart gun, the kind used to put rhinos, or in this case teenagers, to sleep."

    Since Bonnie is a math teacher and the novel's protagonist, the conflict is set up nicely from the first line.

  11. This is probably the best first sentence I know; by Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina:

    "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

    Cold As Heaven

  12. @Cold as Heaven: We have similar taste! I adore the opening to Anna Karenina. That whole first page is awesome.

    @Maryann: Props-- you were the only one brave enough to post your own first sentence! Here's the start of my WIP, THE SPARROW THAT FELL FROM THE SKY:

    I danced at the edge of consciousness, hoping not to fall again into the woozy void.

    @Patricia: Good one! Really sets the tone, too.

  13. I love the fat kid YA one! I'm not crazy about the last one; it sounds more line an overused book jacket line.

    I'm not sure of any off that I love off top of my head. I'll have to think more and get back to you.

    Thanks for this--you've reminded me how much one sentence can do!

  14. Great opening lines. I've read several of the ones you quoted.

    Straight From Hel

  15. This is how I opened Lynx Woods: The whole area looked like it had been ravaged by a dirty bomb.

    Or my favorite, L.A. Heat: THE John Doe had been dead for days.

    An excellent reminder that we need to grab a reader's attention right off. Not pages or even paragraphs later.

  16. From "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" by Jules Verne:

    "The year 1866 was signalised by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and inexplicable phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten."

    You've definitely given me something to think about; I need to have a good think about some of my first sentences.

    Blood-Red Pencil

  17. I love opening lines, too! I'm reading The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill right now.

    The first line is: I seem to have trouble dying.

    Awesome line, huh?

    I'm working on a novel called Graveyard Tours. First line is: “Simon Banks, will you marry me?”

    Face Time

  18. This has always been my favorite:
    "I am sixteen when my mother steps out of her skin one frozen January afternoon-- pure self, atoms twinkling like microscopic diamond chips around her, perhaps the chiming of a clock, or a few bright notes in the distance-- and disappears.

    "White Bird in a Blizzard" by Laura Kasischke

  19. The strangest thing about being a twin is when you’re not one anymore. You’re a half and can’t figure out how to walk without toppling over.

    From my WIP - This thread is great really helped me hone my work right down!

  20. A few first lines have stuck in my head - years after I've read the work.

    "They shot the white girl first." (anyone know the book?)

    "The dead man walked into my office. Alsmost dead man." (this was read in a critique group about ten years ago. I've lost track of the author and don't know if the book has been published.)

    "You can put your clothes back on, then we'll talk some more." from The Sex Club.

    "Jude was dead." from Sugar.

    Thanks Kathryn, this was fun. I love exciting first lines.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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