Thursday, February 11, 2010

Writing a Good First Line


Next week we’ll talk about writing a good opening, but a good opening starts with a good opening line.

The first line of your book is insanely important. Like, I cannot stress to you how important it is. It sets the attitude of the narrator, the mood of the scene, and—when done properly—draws in your reader.

The first thing you should ask yourself about your first line is, “Does this prompt a question?” Does it make the reader ask why? Does it have a bit of intrigue to it?

Here are some examples, pulled from my “favorites” book shelf:

“Sometimes it seems like all I ever do is lie.” – The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot

What is she lying about? Why does she have to lie? Who is she lying to? (And, ironically, Mia’s been lied to all her life, so this first line is extra fab.)

“The name of the song is “This Lullaby.” At this point, I’ve probably heard it, oh, about a million times.” -This Lullaby, Sarah Dessen (Yes, that was technically two sentences.)

What’s the deal with the song? Why has she heard it so often? I also love the clear, strong voice of Remy coming through.

“The Haddan School was built in 1858 on the sloping banks of the Haddan River, a muddy and precarious location that had proven disastrous from the start.” – The River King, Alice Hoffman

Oooh, intrigue. Why did they pick that location? And how has it been a disaster?

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” – Emma, Jane Austen

I just picked this book to make myself look smart. Just kidding. The question this makes me ask is, what’s about to distress and vex her?

“I’d never given much thought to how I would die—though I’d had reason enough in the last few months—but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.” – Twilight, Stephenie Meyer

So many questions. Why’s she about to die? And how? And who’s killing her? And why? And why has she had lots of reasons to think about death recently? An excellent first line, and about a hundred times better than the first line of chapter one, which is, “My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down.” While this does prompt a question (Where is she going?) it’s not great.

So take a look at your first line and see what kind of question it asks, and what kind of tone it sets. If you’re brave enough to open it up to public opinion, you can post it in the comments section. If you’d like feedback but feel a bit squeamish, you can e-mail it to me.


Happy writing everyone!

42 comments:

  1. I'll break the ice by volunteering a few of mine. =)

    "Abigail's tears were unneeded. Mourners enough had been hired by her mother’s husband, and their loud keening drowned out her grief." (Cheating--two sentences;-) from A STRAY DROP OF BLOOD.

    "Melrose Wynn needed a problem--fast." from NOTE TO SELF.

    "The night had a pulse of its own, independent of every living thing that fancied itself real." from TO DANCE WITH LIGHTNING.

    "Davina Wilder barely suppressed a grin at the abject horror on her mother’s face." from LOVE ME SILLY.

    Okay, I'll stop. But Stephanie, I think you need to volunteer your opening to Gabby!!

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    1. I love your first lines! And your titles!

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  2. You're such a good sport, Roseanna :)

    And this is a super illustration of how important it is to have writing friends! I was so stinking unsure about "Gabby" (the series I'm currently working on) the entire time I wrote it. Roseanna read it and was able to give me a huge confidence boost.

    The first line of Out of Reach is: "I’m ninety-nine percent sure the only reason I’m interested in Palmer Davis is because I know without a doubt I could never have him."

    Roseanna, To Dance with Lightning is the only one of those I haven't read. Does it have a literary feel to it? Because you opening line is very literary fiction-esque. It's a good one. I'd keep reading :)

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  3. Literary? Um, no. It was just before I knew that omniscient/author intrusion was a no-no. ;-) It's the one I stole Davina and Orchid from--was Elisa's (Orchid's) story. Artist and the art thief. =) (Trust me, you don't want to read it. WAY head-hopping!!)

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  4. Darn rules! We'll have to cover head-hopping on here...

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  5. "Omigosh, and you can wear that new Roxy top we bought you, Bri!" exclaimed my best friend, Hannah.

    But that doesn't let the reader ask questions, does it? It's just telling them what top she's going to wear -- no surprises there. So, let me try and change it a little...

    "Okay, so, Bri -- what do you think of THIS?"
    My best friend, Hannah, swished open the change-room curtains with a flourish. My mouth dropped open.

    Some of the words got a little bit mixed up... but I just changed the setting from walking home from school to looking for a new oufit for the party they're going to... tell me, what do you think? :)

    Luv,Emii

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  6. okay, i'm a little embarrassed saying this, but here is my opening.

    "For a teenage girl with the most romantic heart the first day of summer is a beautiful thing. It signifies freedom to do whatever you please with no fear of grades or homework."

    maybe it's not any good, but eh, first draft right?

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  7. hahah that definitely was not meant to be anonymous. it's mine.
    sorry!

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  8. Emii, while there really wasn't anything wrong with your original first line, I think the alternative you came up with is much more gripping. I'd go with that one!

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  9. Mary, I thought you might just be flying under the radar :)

    The really good thing that your first line does is it sets a tone. There's a lot of voice in those lines, and it makes me think your narrator is a dreamer.

    It doesn't make me ask a question, but I think tweaking it to be more intriguing is way easier than trying to find a voice for your narrator :)

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  10. Yeah, Mary -- I love those books, the ones where you can "hear" the readers voice. You'd better publish, cuz I want to read it... and I've only read the first line! :P

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  11. I'm new, but how is this??

    “Please don't leave, Dad,” I placed another suitcase in the truck of dad's car.

    God Bless!!

    Rachel.T

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  12. Welcome, Rachel!

    This is a great first line. Already I'm feeling sympathetic toward our narrator, and I'm wondering if he's leaving for good or just heading out on business. Great job!

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  13. You probably won't see this, but how is this opening line?

    "It was hate at first sight. His stinkin' body sent me into gagging convulsions as a reached for his limp arm."

    OOPS that was two.

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  14. Definitely draws me in. Anything that's a twist on a classic line (like love at first sight) tends to work well. "Stinkin'" has a lot of voice to it. If you mean it literally that he smells, I might use "stinking." When I see "Stinkin'" used it's usually something more like, "That kid is so stinkin' cute."

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  15. Okay, thank you :D I just thought of it today. I'm thinking it'll be the opening line for a western/outlaw book xD

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  16. I'm a little nevous about posting this but hey ho , what have I got to lose. Here's my first line of a book i'm working on.


    "I can’t think of a time that I didn’t feel horrible around people."

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    Replies
    1. Definitely makes me curious! You might be able to smooth it out a little bit (All my life I've felt horrible around people) but the voice and conflict are both there. Nice job!

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  17. After reading this post I'm sure I can do better than this, but here's my first line:

    "I'm sure you will be pleased. She is right in here," the woman's cruel voice made Ahava wish she was still sleeping.

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    Replies
    1. I think this is really good! Since Ahava is the POV character, it looks like, what if you flip it so it's:

      Ahava wished she was still sleeping when she heard the woman (maybe something more descriptive, like her captor?) saying, "I'm sure you'll be pleased. She's right in here."

      Starting with the POV character's name can help anchor the reader in the scene.

      Delete
  18. I seriously just thought of that right now, so I'm sure it's horrible.

    "I woke screaming from the nightmare that's been haunting me for weeks."

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  19. My first time ever trying to write a novel, and I'm a bit clueless. xD This blog has been helping me out so much! Anyways, is this alright?

    "Syd Fairchild woke with a start. Her vision was blurry, her head was throbbing, and sharp jagged rocks dug into her elbows as she tried to prop herself up."

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  20. The mask was black over his face. Eric could feel the darkness burn into him.
    I cheated, two sentences.

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  21. I'm revising and rewriting, so I have to decide what my REAL opening line will be. Here are a few.

    First draft:
    "Raine woke to the sound of bird calls."

    Second Draft:
    "It seemed that it would be another boring day until I felt the sting of a knife at my throat."

    Third Draft:
    "Most animals don't seem to like me, but this dog was different. It loathed me."

    (Loathed is supposed to be italics, but i can't type with italics on the internet.)
    Can't decide! Please help!

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    Replies
    1. Second draft. Love it. The other two I honestly would choose not to read, most likely, but I love the second draft line.

      Delete
  22. I'm running, tripping, clawing at the trees around me to climb back up, losing my grip on the slippery moss.

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  23. "This situation that I've gotten myself into is so horrible, so ironically twisted, it's almost funny."
    :)

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  24. "Everyone was happier when he was gone, and he graced the world by being gone for five hundred years, but of course it couldn't last."
    :D

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  25. "I never saw the train coming, but yet again, who does?"

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  26. "My enthusiasm deflated like a pathetic little balloon."

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  27. Wow! Amazing posts about writing, Stephanie! I’m working my way through all of them today. =)
    So here’s my first (two) sentences from the Intro for my WIP that I started for the 100/100 challenge:

    “No!!!”
    The broken-hearted shriek sent shivers up the backbone of the crowd gathered outside the lodge, awaiting news.

    And then from the first chapter (of the same book),

    “Princess Rylie.” Dropping into a soft curtsy, the woman in front of me seemed to expect recognition on my part.

    So, I’m not sure how that is, but I think it follows the rules.
    ~Aidyl

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  28. I've been totally hooked on this blog for the past few days! I suppose I'll share some of my story beginners - I'd love some feedback from anyone!

    "My arrow whizzed through the brisk winter air, missing the target by just an inch."

    "Charlotte leaned over the top of my chair, a familiar gold locket swinging from her neck."

    "I was born on a radiant spring morning, May 26, 1929."

    "I clutched Yeva's clammy little handing, vowing to myself that I'd never let go.

    ~ Madeline :)

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  29. I usually like my first line to me dialogue. I my current WIP, the character is just waking up, so I can't have her voice in it... Anyway, here's the first line:

    “I think she's waking up!”

    Here's the second line, just for good measure:

    Oooooooohhhh... What? Who – where?

    That's Reginae's (the MC) thoughts. Suggestions?

    One of my personal favorites out of the stories I've written:

    Every drop of sweat, every gasp of pain, every delirious murmur sent a stab of pain to her heart.

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  30. Um, I'm not sure whether this is any good or not, but I like it. It's from my WIP:

    I was never a perfect child.

    And here's one from Sisters of the Sword:

    I have become invisible.

    I fell in love with the book when I read that, not so much because it gave me questions, but because it just sounded so cool. Sooo... maybe that's just me. :P

    ~Katelyn~

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  31. "The war began at 4:30 AM in April 12, 1861 with the attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina."

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  32. Technically it is this:
    What if there was an entire world out there that everyone knows about, but no one knows it exists?
    But my story actually starts with:
    Wake up, go to school, lunch, more school, go home, homework, and go to sleep, repeat. Every day, for most of the year.

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  33. It seems I rarely bother with a good first line in my first drafts. Sigh. Oh well!
    My current story starts with: When the first thing that happens as I step outside is a sock hitting me in the face, I know it's going to be a perfectly wonderful day.
    And the old first sentence of something I'm going to be restarting is: The sunset looked up, and Shadow's amber eyes glinted awake.
    The first one seems awkward to me, and the second one doesn't really bring any questions up... the rest of the paragraph does, though. :3 I'll be rewriting that whole scene anyway, so I can keep it in mind to have a question. And they're both first drafts... I'm not panicking yet, anyway.

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  34. My first line:

    "Ah, what a night to be alive."

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  35. How about this:
    Every world has its evils.

    Or:
    The forest breathed through the night, silently respiring through the glades of darkness.

    Both options are open really. I'd love any feedback. Thanks for the post!

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    Replies
    1. I like both of them, but I like the sound of the second one the best. I like the way it sounds, and the description is beautiful, but it might be better to start with the POV character. But I would keep reading. :)

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  36. I'm having trouble with mine because mt story starts out boring, but when the action starts is the moment my MC makes the big decision that starts the whole plot. Here's one of my ideas:
    Hope never guessed that such a small sound could create both relief and fear at the same instant.
    The problem with that one is the sound that she hears is a text message from her best friend. SobI'm afraid that the first sentence makes it sound more exciting and serious than it's going to be, so the next sentence will disappoint whoever reads it. There's a reason Hope has such strong emotions about that text message, and it's part of her personality, but still... I'm afraid it'll be boring. I would love feedback.

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