Thursday, June 6, 2013

Crafting the first line

First lines are a big deal in the writing world. A great first line can grab readers by the shirt collar, and force them to keep reading. Likewise, a boring, or confusing, or trite first line can be enough to make someone put down a book forever.

After hearing multiple comments on Project Fun's first line, from love, to a suggestion to tighten it, to a suggestion to delete it all together, I decided to do some research about what makes a great first line.
  • A hint of place
  • A hint of mystery
  • A hint of the end
  • An interesting character
A good line should draw in a reader, make them want to read line two, then line three, then devour the whole book. It should cause an emotional reaction. It should also convey all the basics of a novel, tone, genre, age-range, so a reader knows exactly what kind of story they're slipping into.

All in one line? Now you're getting why writers get a little uptight about crafting that perfect first sentence.

A few other tips I learned about what a first line shouldn't include: 
  • Dialogue. Without knowing the speaker, dialogue can be confusing, and once the reader does know the speaker, they'll probably have to go backwards--rather than forward in your novel--to re-read the dialogue in context.
  • Adjectives, adverbs, cliches--anything that can cloud the writing.
I brainstormed descriptions of my setting, mysteries in my book, and what my character discovers at the end. I combined all of that, along with a healthy sprinkling of character and voice, and jotted down over a dozen possibilities.

I also checked out my nearby bookshelf for some good examples:

"It's one thing watching someone get killed."
When I Was Joe by Keren David

I love how this is an incomplete sentence, forcibly pulling me to finish the thought and read the second sentence. It also manages to effortlessly (in 7 words!) convey voice and genre.

"You saw me before I saw you."
Stolen by Lucy Christopher

Spooky! Definitely a hint of mystery.

"The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World."
Going Bovine by Libba Bray

To me, this line has it all: hints of mystery and place, an interesting character, a hint of the end (hope I can say that without giving anything away!), voice and humor. Actually, at this very moment, I'm thinking I haven't ever re-read Going Bovine, even though I've wanted to for a while, and I'm tempted to scrap this whole blog post and keep reading.

But one last thing! After all that research and brainstorming, what first line did I end up with? Well... I stuck with the one I had.

I know. It's still a work in progress. But I couldn't craft anything I liked better and remain true to the story I wanted to tell (though I did tighten the second and third lines). So maybe it's a keeper after all.

"My first day of school, way back in kindergarten, ended with me cowering under the reading station table, my hands clamped over my ears."

Okay, I showed you mine! What's your current first line?


  1. I love playing with opening lines. My current one is: "Rachel, don't hold your spatula like a knife!" :-)

    1. I, however, am totally sick of playing with first lines! ;)
      Don't hold your spatula like a knife definitely makes me want to keep reading--sounds like a fun girl to me!

  2. I *adore* first lines. It's embarrassing how many times I have flipped through countless books and looked at these only, in the library, just as a sort of writerly game.
    Many of my stories came to me as a line, usually the first one.

    1. Interesting. I hardly think about first lines until I have to craft something for a story... definitely not natural for me.

  3. I'm with Mirka, I love looking at just first lines! I'll do that w/my own bookcase- grab one down, look, grab another. Here's my first: The coal chute is rather what I imagine a snake's belly to be like- cold, cramped, and dark.

    1. Ohhh, I really like your first line, Leandra. I'd definitely keep reading to figure out what in the world your character's doing in that scary coal chute!


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