by Vanessa Di Gregorio
Every story has a beginning; some are bad, some are good, and some are downright amazing. And it all starts with your first line.
Last week, we looked at our worst first lines. And you could tell that they weren’t working. So, what is key to writing that brilliant first line? How do you start writing when the first line is so all-important?
Well, it’s simple; just write. If you haven’t started writing a new manuscript because you don’t know how to start it (first lines are very daunting), just start writing. Even if it’s a scene that takes place later, once you’ve got one sentence down, the rest comes a bit easier. First lines aren’t necessarily born; they aren’t always the first things you write. Most of the time, that great first line you can be proud of comes after you’ve finished your manuscript; and after multiple revisions. So, don’t make first lines the first thing you stress over; make it one of the last. Then again, sometimes you start writing knowing only your first line. Just try not to think too much about it until you get to the revision stage. But regardless of where in your MS you are, I thought we could look at what makes a good first line.
It’s always intimidating when you try to think of (or edit) your first line. After all, it is the first thing people will read! It’s common knowledge that you should try to hook your reader in the first page; and some authors are able to do that with their first sentence. So, how can you achieve that awesome opening sentence that will make people want to read more right away?
Grab some books off your bookshelf and check out their first lines. Find your favourite ones and read those first sentences. What makes them so effective?
What you’ll probably notice is that they are:
- Short, sweet, and simple
- Set the tone of the story
- Raise questions and/or shock you
- Have a very compelling and clear voice
What you might also notice is that the first and second lines work in tandem together. So don’t stress about trying to put everything into one sentence. If it works better in two sentences, split them into two.
Here are some examples:
Short & Sweet:
Keeping it simple has always been a good tip when writing. It prevents overwriting, and gets straight to the point. Keeping it short also makes readers interested in learning more, and their eyes will quickly move to the second line.
“She learns pain early.” – Anchee Min, Becoming Madame Mao
You can’t get much simpler than this. It’s short and sweet; and best of all, it catches your attention. You immediately ask, “Why?” So don’t feel that you need to overwrite your first sentence; sometimes the simpler it is, the better.
“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” – Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Solider
Again, this is pretty simple. And this sentence also begs the question, “Why?” – We, as readers, want to know why and how the story is sad. It is effective, simple, and straight to the point. This line is also a great example of setting the tone of the rest of the novel.
“Juniper was different from us.” – Monica Furlong, Wise Child
Yet another short and simple sentence. Reading this, I wanted to know, “Who is Juniper, and how is she different?”. This sentence also introduces a character in a way that is interesting.
Let’s face it; shocking people works. As does asking questions. When you throw something in that is so wrong, or grotesque, or strange, or uncanny, or terrifying, you get people’s attention. Be bold; make eyebrows raise. Do something so crazy that it catches your reader’s eye.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – Geroge Orwell, 1984
This opening line immediately makes you pause. Clocks striking thirteen? When you think of clocks striking any number, chances are you’re thinking of a traditional round clock, with it’s hands pointing to the time; not a digital or 24-hour clock. You picture Big Ben striking midnight; but what do you picture when the author throws in something completely strange? Well, you end up intrigued. Orwell hooks you right from the get-go by shocking you.
“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” – Albert Camus, The Stranger
Quite possibly my favourite opening line ever. Just brilliant. This is definitely shocking when you read it. It can be interpreted so many ways; is he heartless? Or is he in such shock that time no longer matters? Whatever your initial reaction to this opening (which is, I know, two sentences – which you can do!), you know that you’re immediately hooked and want to know more. Plus, it sets the tone for the rest of the novel beautifully, and has a great voice.
Setting the Tone:
The tone of your MS can be set in different ways; it can be in the description of the setting, or in the voice of a character, or perhaps just with a simple statement. Regardless of what direction you go, setting the tone allows you to create an atmosphere that entrances your reader.
“I was sixteen years old the day I was lost in the forest, sixteen the day I met death.” – Martine Leavitt, Keturah and Lord Death
There is a lot of great stuff going on in this first sentence. It makes you ask questions, and is definitely shocking; it introduces you to character, and has a wonderful voice; and it sets the tone for the rest of the novel. I don’t know how anyone can read this sentence and not want to keep reading!
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.” – Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
I am a huge fan of this opening sentence. It’s still pretty short and sweet (definitely not a long winding sentence), and it gets to the point. It sets the tone; it seems that Katniss, throughout The Hunger Games, is left in the cold (in a way). She is left looking for warmth, but she is also wary of it. It just seems to me to be a wonderful first line to an amazing book. It makes you ask questions, and is a bit scary; as is a lot of what happens in the novel.
If your MS has a great and compelling voice, use it for your first line. Great and interesting characters will always hook your readers. If you can make your character come to life in that first sentence, your readers will connect with your character right then and there; and will want to keep reading as a result.
“If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.” – Chuck Palahniuk, Choke
Chuck Palahniuk is great when it comes to capturing a narrator’s voice. The voice is so clear and intriguing and full of character; and he accomplishes this in only eight words.
The first line is definitely something you want to be aware of when you write (but not too aware!). It should, at some point during your revision process, be given quite a bit of thought. Some might argue that the first line is even more important than your title! So remember: be bold, be brave, and be clear. Get people’s feedback; maybe someone will point out another line you’ve written that would work much better as a first line. Don’t be afraid to keep it short; as seen above, short and sweet can be incredibly effective, and will get people itching to read your second sentence. Don’t be afraid to shock people, or get them asking questions; don’t be afraid to introduce your characters right off the bat, or set the tone with a descriptive line. But be sure to give your first line some attention; after all, it IS the first impression your readers will get. And you want that impression to be lasting.
Tomorrow, we’ll be answering the QOTW regarding our favourite first lines; and hopefully, you’ll share some favourites too!
Today, though, I thought we could share first lines we’ve written ourselves.
To start us off, I’ll share mine:
“In the darkness before Dawn, our people, the Ane’a, were born.”
So, what are the first lines of your MSS?
Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.