Thursday, June 10, 2010

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.

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.


  1. awesome awesome tips! I've changed my first line/first paragraph SO many times throughout editing and revising. It really is important to get it just right.

  2. Great post, Lacey! I rewrote my first line SO many times before I was happy with it. :)

  3. People always talk about first lines but no one has broken it down quite so well.

    I need to change mine. I need to change a lot of things. But I guess I'll work on finishing my manuscript first....otherwise I'll get lost in editing it again.

  4. Such amazing tips! I've never been happy with the first line of my current WiP, so I'll definitely be using this post when I start editing. Thanks so much!

  5. Great post/tips. Those are so helpful! I tried commenting earlier, but it didn't work, so if I comment twice, sorry!
    Basically I said how I could've used these tips in previous manuscripts, and how I'll definitely use them in the future. :) Thanks again!

  6. Very useful info here! Nicely done. The only one I have trouble with (and I've debated this before) is the "rule" not to use dialogue. In most cases that is true, but there are some great examples of dialogue as a beautiful first line (e.g., Charlotte's Web: "Where's Papa going with that ax?")

  7. EXCELLENT post -- and not just because you mention our contest. I love that you provided wonderful examples.

    I have to say, the first fifty entries in the contest have an amazing number of excellent openings, too, and fifty more slots are opening at noon. I know I don't envy Natalie Fischer the hard decisions as she does the judging, but it is going to be a great learning opportunity for all of us to compare all these lines side by side and watch the comments and professional critiques!

  8. First lines are so hard to get right!

    ACP, thanks for stopping by! We love your blog and all three of us have entered your contest! Thanks for hosting!

  9. lovely post! Thanks for sharing ^_^

  10. Great points and soooo important to grab the readers attention with that opening sentence. Thanks for the reminder!


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