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What’s the Big Deal about First Lines?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

I’ve posted some from published authors and I’ve posted some of my own. So, what’s the big deal about first lines?

In the workbook for Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass writes: “Weak first lines greet us like a limp handshake.” You know—the limp-wrist, no-grip handshake that makes you wish you’d been handed a dead fish instead.

According to my writing guru, Sol Stein, in Stein on Writing, there are three goals for the opening paragraph of a story or novel:

  1. To excite the reader’s curiosity, preferably about a character or a relationship.
  2. To introduce a setting.
  3. To lend resonance to the story

Nancy Kress in Beginnings, Middles & Ends puts it slightly differently:

“Every story makes a promise to the reader. Actually, two promises, one emotional and one intellectual. . . .
     The emotional promise goes: Read this and you’ll be entertained or thrilled or scared or titillated or saddened or nostalgic or uplifted—but always absorbed.
     There are three versions of the intellectual promise . . . (1) Read this and you’ll see this world from a different perspective; (2) Read this and you’ll have confirmed what you already want to believe about the world; or (3) Read this and you’ll learn of a different, more interesting world than this.”

Not only do all three of them agree on the importance of the opening line/scene, but they also agree on the space in which you have to make your impression on the “average” reader: three paragraphs for a short story, three pages for a novel. Fewer than one thousand words. And many acquisitions editors give them even less time. Most editors I’ve talked to or heard speak on panels say that they usually know by the end of the first paragraph of a submission whether or not they’re going want to see more or automatically put it on the “rejections” pile.

So—how can we analyze a first line/paragraph to see if it works as a hook? Let’s look at an example from Liz Curtis Higgs’ contemporary romance Mixed Signals:

Rainy days and Mondays never got Belle O’Brien down.  Not when her radio listeners were waiting.

Just two short sentences, yet a wealth of information on setting and characterization:
–it’s raining
–it’s a Monday
–the POV character’s name is Belle O’Brien
–Belle is an optimist
–it’s a contemporary/modern setting
–Belle is a radio show host
–Belle lives for her job

How about the opening line from George Orwell’s 1984:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

(Aside from the fact that it starts with one of the worst sentence constructions in the English language):
–It’s April, but it’s cold, which either indicates something unusual or that this takes place somewhere in the North
–It’s bright (daytime?)
–Clocks, plural—taking place somewhere populated most likely
striking THIRTEEN—whoa! What? Sure on a 24 hour clock it shows 13:00 for 1 p.m., but clocks that chime don’t strike thirteen times—they strike once. Definitely something very unusual about this. Must read on.

Go pick up a book you haven’t read—or one you haven’t read in a long time. Read only the first line—maybe the first couple of lines if they’re short. Break down the sentences into key components (do you know how to diagram sentences?)—the nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Does it grab you and not let go? Is it active (The crack of the pistol’s report came from directly behind the courier) or passive (Ryan was nearly killed twice in half an hour) voice? Is the character named or not? Is the setting revealed (and not just because it’s written with a date stamp above the first line)? What do you learn about the time of day, the location of the character, what you might have just walked in on the middle of?

Next, pick up one of your favorite books and do the same exercise. Does the opening line convey what you know to be the tone of the story? Is it memorable?

Now, do the same with your work in progress. If your current first sentence doesn’t work, is there something else in the opening few paragraphs you could use as your first sentence to grab the reader’s (and, more importantly, editor’s) attention?

  1. Tuesday, April 10, 2007 12:54 pm

    Good exercise. First lines draw the reader in and set the tone. Choice of verb, even number of words can suggest fast pace, lots of suspense, or slower, more cerebral story.

    Book I’m reading now begins “Kelly slowly read the headline.” Although I’m halfway through, this suggests to me intrigue. What’s the headline about? It’s a romance so I know there’s a romantic plot coming. How does the headline tie into the romance? From the first word, I assumed Kelly would be the heroine, which she is, but now that I think about it, the choice of name is a bit ambiguous. There are men who go by Kelly.

    I’ll have to take a look at my own wips.


  2. Tuesday, April 10, 2007 1:24 pm

    “Have they made a decision yet?” Josh asked as he joined Abby and Rachael in the mudroom. A perfect place to eavesdrop.

    My genre is Middle Grade Adventure.

    I’ll check out the book I’m reading tonight…First chapters (for me) are the hardest to write…between the first line, the first paragraph, the first 1000 words…so much pressure to make sure you do it right.


  3. Tuesday, April 10, 2007 1:40 pm

    I enjoyed reading through your last few posts. First lines are HUGE! I think I do all right with first lines, but last lines I can’t figure out for the life of me (how that for a cliche?) I think the first few paragraphs will either hook a reader or cause them to close the book–I usually read the first few paragraphs when I’m at the bookstore and there’s not enough $$ to buy everything.


  4. Tuesday, April 10, 2007 4:57 pm

    Hmmm…I have some defrosted jellyfish first lines in my work. Definitely something to strive to improve.



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