Thursday, June 09, 2011

It's a Start: The First Line

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Several years ago, I was sitting in a room with a bunch of other writers at the Surrey International Writers Conference. We were all waiting for agent Donald Maass to begin his workshop on creating tension in our writing. He walked in, asked someone in the audience for the first page of their manuscript, and read the first line. Then he asked one of the scariest question you can ask.

By show of hands, how many people want to hear the second line?

That session was an eye-opening experience for me, and it prepared me for what I would learn the rest of the conference. If it wasn't for that conference, I wouldn't have come home and written the book that became my debut novel (The Shifter)

Why did this have such an effect on me? Because it really drove home how critical those first lines can be. The lines that started with something terrible happening, or someone is dire straits, got very few hands. It completely blew away the old idea to "start with a bang." The lines that were funny, and the lines that offered something intriguing got the most hands every time.

What I took away from this is that curiosity wins. If you can make your reader curious about what you've written, they'll stay with you. A strong opening line will do that. It's often what sells your book, as both readers and agents judge your work on the first line the next few paragraphs after that. Fail to intrigue and hook them in those early sentences (those dreaded 250 words you hear about all the time), and they'll likely put the book down and move on. Pique their curiosity, and they'll keep reading.

That first year at Surrey, my opening line was: She had to find the boy.

I was too scared to offer it up, so I never found out how many hands I would have gotten, but based on the number of rejections I got for that book, the hands would surely have been few.

After I got home, I worked on a new story, determined to take what I'd learned and write something that would pass the hand test. I had a new story idea, I knew my opening scene, knew the first chapter, but I didn't have that first line. It took me weeks of thinking before I got it.

The first line of The Shifter is: Stealing eggs is a lot harder than stealing the whole chicken.

It just felt right. I never got to do the hand test with it, but I get comments on it all the time from readers and reviewers. I'd like to think the hands would certainly have gone up.

What's the first line of your current project?

Stuck on your first line, or your first chapter? Maybe one of these articles can help get your started.
The First 250 Words of Your Manuscript
Seven Deadly Sins (If You're a First Chapter)
Writing the First Line of Your Novel
Overcoming False Starts in Your First Chapter


  1. I'm not married to my first line yet, I like it but I'm not sure. Here it goes:

    "If the Twilight Zone was a place, then I was there."

  2. I found I can't obsess over the opening until I'm well into the book, or I'd never get past page 1. And I'm still more likely to try for a good opening paragraph, hoping someone will read beyond one sentence. In one of my books, I thought I had a good opening line ("I might as well walk in there naked.") but then the editor wanted me to start with an "opening gambit" the way I had in the first book, so that line moved into the next scene.

    Right now, Hubster doesn't like the opening of my WIP (but can't tell me why). As I said, I can't obsess about it until I know more about the book. It's probably because it's a line of dialogue, and there's no character connection until the next sentence.
    "You'll do well to get rid of that chip on your shoulder before you report to Chief Laughlin."

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  3. "Ethan wanted to kill someone."

    Hoping it makes the reader ask: Who? Why?

  4. I have only been writing since November, and I've had so many ideas for stories that I'm taking June to write a whole bunch of first drafts. I've been more concerned with getting the basic story out then getting it perfect, so deep thoughts of opening lines haven't crossed my mind yet.

    Here's one though. "Cogal didn’t really have to clear his throat to announce that we needed to shut up and start the meeting, we were already sitting in stony silence." Horrid, I know. ;) The little guy will be fixed up soon, someday he'll be a better opening line.

  5. I LOVED the first line of The Shifter. I read it several times before I moved on, just admiring it, and pondering on whether it was true. :) (I don't think it was a stop-the-forward-action flaw, since I did continue after a moment.) :)

    My current first line is:

    The magazine cover taped to her locker hadn’t been torn carefully, and a jagged gash ripped halfway through Brina’s right wing.

  6. Great concept - reading only the first line. You can ask this of anyone, to read your first line and see if they want to know the second. So helpful. Thank you.

    The link list is marvelous too.

  7. Kristin Nador6/09/2011 12:48 PM

    Thanks for this post. I am a newer writer with a new WIP, and at times every line seems to terrify me. I keep thinking my first line is too boring, no oomph. This is it : "The boots tumbled into the sawdust as Magdalena pried the trunk open, its stubborn hinges protesting."

    I love the simplicity of this test, going to go find some 'test subjects' :) . Definitely going to check out the other article links you list.

  8. Argh, I know my first line isn't a clincher. Not a hooky hook. May have to rethink...not ALL novels have a hooky first line though, but the first paragraph as a whole must be hooky!!

    Thanks for commenting on my blog! I always read your posts and learn a lot, even when I don't have time to comment. (I couldn't respond to you directly cuz you don't have an email linked to your profile.) I enjoyed reading your comment. :)

  9. I knew the first line was critical, but thank you for giving something specific to strive for: funny or raised curiosity. Your first line is great! - def. makes me want to know why it's harder to steal eggs.

    My current firster is just a place holder, but now that I'm armed with a little more knowledge I'll get back to brainstorming...

  10. Interesting! I have no idea whether my first line is any good.. Ack! :)

    Daniel’s switchblade clattered to the floor from his slackened fingers, the knife the least of his worries.

  11. The first line of mine is:

    Four days after the accident, the last thing I wanted to attend was a funeral, even for my little brother’s goldfish.

    I'm considering doing Surrey this October--are you going?

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  12. Here's my opening line from a story about a man who lost his family in a train derailment:

    "What people say — about your whole life flashing before your eyes — happened to Rebecka Marshall."

  13. Dawn: I instantly get a sense that things are out of whack for your narrator :)

    Terry: There are days I wish I was more like that, LOL. But it works for me so oh well. Love the naked line. Dialog is tough as an opener. I've noticed the good ones seem to be really unusual or evocative.

    Michelle: I like it! Makes me wonder if he's just mad or kinda psycho.

    Madeline: If you just started writing you have plenty of time to worry about first lines. :) I think focusing on the basic story first is the right way to go.

    Robin: Aw, thanks! The wing part of that is intriguing. People with wings in magazines? Hmmm what kind of world is this?

    Barbara: It was a life-changing workshop for sure. I still remember the really good first lines five years later. That really says something.

    Kristin: Getting the right first line can take time, so don't worry over it (unless you're like me and need that perfect first line). A lot of writers don't know their first line until they've written their last line. Just find the process that works for you.

    Carol: Nope, they don't. A great first line is just one more opportunity to hook a reader is all. As long as you're hooking them on that first page you're usually good.

    Fixed my email in the profile, thanks for letting me know! I thought I had it listed there.

    Margo: Thanks! It was fascinating hearing random lines and seeing folks reactions to them. Changed my view on openings right then and there.

    Jami: I love the last part of that. "The knife was the least of his worries." That totally grabs me.

    Angela: Love the mix of tragic and childlike there with the goldfish. I'm seriously thinking about Surrey this year. They just opened early registration too. October will be a busy month so I'm trying to decide if I'll survive a cross-country trip that month, hehe. But I really want to go.

    Ian: How sad :(

  14. That IS a great first line! Thanks for this reminder about those opening words. I haven't started writing my next project yet, but I'm already trying out samples of the first line.

  15. Awesomeness! :) This is very helpful actually. I might quote you somewhere. ;) As for the first first sentence, i would have raised my hand. 'She had to find the boy.' makes me curious. But that's just little odd me.

    Ohhh, but the eggs one is brilliant. Well done. You know, I always tell people that humor is critical in writing but this proves it. I'd always raise my hand at funny. I eat funny for breakfast, brunch, lunch, snack, and dinner. :D Thank you for this post! 250 words huh? Omg.

    Oh wait. I forgot to add my first sentence. This is the one for my fantasy series: 'She woke up to a shower of glass.' I used to like it but now I'm not sure. Might change it.

  16. I have a very love-hate relationship with the beginning of my WIP right now. But, since I work very slowly, I've slapped the label of "Good enough" on it. The first lines are one of the major problems. (Since I wrote a prologue, I have two.) And both of them would probably have failed the hand test:

    In the beginning, there was Nothing...

    (It's not actually a creation story, but that's not obvious until the third or fourth line.)And

    Hannah should not have been surprised.

  17. Julie: Thanks! And good luck on your first line. :) I have a file for good lines that come to me out of the blue. Not sure if they'll ever become novels or not, but they're neat openings.

    Violeta: I'm glad you liked my "boy" line. I always liked it, but after that class I wasn't sure it if had enough oompf.

    Humor gets me every time, too. I've bought books solely on funny first lines.

    I like the shower of glass image. It's both beautiful and dangerous at the same time.

    Kathie: Nothing wrong with good enough if that's how you work :) In the beginning does sound like a prologue, hehe. The Hannah line could work well if you added details after it. Shouldn't have been surprised by X. If it's something intriguing you could grab readers with it.

  18. Raising my hand for the goldfish and the knife opening lines. Both intrigue. Thanks for sharing.

  19. This post is really helpful! Getting to see all these first lines, as well. :) I've got to try that hand thing; I'd like to see how many people would raise their hands for my opening lines.
    I'm late to the party, but...
    The first line of my main project is "They called it “the last bastion of civilization,” which was incredibly inaccurate."
    And I just started a side project to tide me over during a nasty bout of writer's block... It starts off with:
    "We deal in death."

  20. I like both. What really makes me curious in the first one is the voice. The "incredibly" makes it feel like a person, not just the narrative.