The Importance of the First Line

Today the gals over at Adventures in Children's Publishing are hosting a contest judging first lines of completed manuscripts and it got me thinking about the importance of first lines.

With my first WIP, the opening had no real hook aside from the setting. It's a historical and takes place in an era we're all familiar with (or should be familiar with) so there's tension, but the line wasn't a hook.

With my newer WIP, I have a definite hook. The reaction to the two is very different. And not just because of content.

Someone said (and if I can find who, I'll post a name) that the first line sells the book, the last line sells the second book.

Out of curiosity I grabbed the closest book, LOW RED MOON by Ivy Devlin, and opened it up. The first line reads: I was covered in blood when the police found me.

That is a GREAT opening line! It catches my attention and it makes me ask questions. Why is she covered in blood? Who's blood? Was it a murder? Was it an accident?

Not all great books have a great opening line. In some cases, such as with TWILIGHT, the author uses a catchy prologue to grab your attention. This, in my opinion, is fine if that prologue serves a purpose. If you come back to it later. If you don't it can upset your reader. I can think of a few books who had catchy prologues that made me ask a lot of questions, but then those questions weren't answered in that book.
Frustrating.

In most cases I think we as writers need to avoid prologues.

Suzannah over at Write it Sideways came up with a great list of what NOT to do in your opening lines:

  • Dialogue. Nice somewhere on the first or second page, but not in the first line. We won’t know who’s speaking or why we should care.
  • Excessive description. Some description is good, but not when it’s long winded. Skip the purple prose and opt for something more powerful.
  • Irrelevant information. The first few lines of your story are crucial, so give your reader only important information.
  • Introducing too many characters. I don’t like to be bombarded with the names of too many characters at once. How are we supposed to keep them straight when we don’t know who’s who?

And a great list of thing you want to do:

1. Make your readers wonder.

Put a question in your readers’ minds. What do those first lines mean? What’s going to happen? Make them wonder, and you’ll keep them reading.

2. Begin at a pivotal moment.

By starting at an important moment in the story, your reader is more likely to want to continue so he or she can discover what will happen next.

  • “It was dark where she was crouched but the little girl did as she’d been told.” ~Kate Morton, The Forgotten Garden
  • “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.” ~Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

3. Create an interesting picture.

Description is good when it encourages people to paint a picture in their minds. Often, simple is best so it’s the reader who imagines a scene, instead of simply being told by the author.

  • “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” ~Daphne DuMaurier,Rebecca
  • “She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance.” ~Michael Ontaatje, The English Patient

4. Introduce an intriguing character.

The promise of reading more about a character you find intriguing will, no doubt, draw you into a story’s narrative. Most often, this is one of the main characters in the book.

  • “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.” ~Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

5. Start with an unusual situation.

Show us characters in unusual circumstances, and we’ll definitely be sticking around to see what it’s all about.

  • “They had flown from England to Minneapolis to look at a toilet.” ~Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked
  • Last night, I dreamt that I chopped Andrew up into a hundred little pieces, like a Benihana chef, and ate them, one by one.” ~Julie Buxbaum, The Opposite of Love

6. Begin with a compelling narrative voice.

Open your story with the voice of a narrator we can instantly identify with, or one that relates things in a fresh way.

  • “As I begin to tell this, it is the golden month of September in southwestern Ontario.” ~Alistair MacLeod, No Great Mischief
  • “I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other.” ~Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants
Write what you love, write the book you want to read, but always know your target audience and keep your readers in mind. From the first line to the last.

7 comments:

Christina Lee said...

yes yes yes!!! GREAT post. That opening line is so hard to do right for me! But I think I got the hang of it (finally).

Jan von Harz said...

Awesome post. Got me thinking about all the books I have read this year and the great or not so great first line.

I have often used great opening lines to illustrate to my students the importance of introductions and specifically what I call the grabber.

Angela Ackerman said...

It's been interesting to read all those first lines in the contest. The best seem to be ones that have one or more of these:

Shows voice
Starts with tension
Makes the reader ask questions
Introduces an unusual or non-typical setting
Introduces a strange situation or circumstance
Evokes emotion

I'm looking forward to seeing how it proceeds! :)Yours is one of the best, IMO.

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Great post. It's going on my cool links Friday post. I don't suppose you want to do on the last line of the novel, now that you brought it up? ;)

I'm with Angela. Your first line is awesome. Can't wait to read your second one. :D

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I drifted over from Stina's blog and really enjoyed this post. Angela's commment rocks, too. Since I need to revamp my opening, I'm taking notes. Thanks!

Margo Berendsen said...

I love posts like this full of examples! Very helpful. Now I gotta hop over to Adventures to see YOUR first line!

Megan Frances said...

First lines can hook the reader - or push the reader away. Great reminder - love the examples. I'm retweeting this!

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