Thursday, September 1, 2011
On Your Mark. Get Set. Go! Writing the First Line of Your Novel
A while back I talked a bit about openings and shared an experience I had at a conference concerning first lines. First lines are critical to me, because I'm the type of writer who just can't get off on the right foot (or is that, write foot?) if I don't have a strong opening line. I admire folks who can jump in and write away and go back and edit those opening lines. Once I get past the first few pages, then I can go back and edit, but those first lines need to be more than placeholders for me to really get anywhere.
There's a lot of pressure on the first line of a book. We've all read the terrifying articles and posts about how agents never get past the first line or paragraph when going through submissions. I wish I could say this is a myth, but your opening line can make or break you.
The first line sets the tone of the novel. It offers the reader a taste of what's to come. While a mediocre one probably won't turn anyone off, it lowers the expectations and already puts a "I hope it gets better" thought in the reader's mind. They read on, but are waiting for the story to get good. A bad one can turn off a reader (and an agent) and make them put the book back on the shelf or in the rejection pile. A bad line says "this book needs work," even if it's just a false start.
If you think about it, the first line is like a first impression. You want it to be the best. If it's not, it doesn't bode well that things will get any better. A bad first impression often puts you on the defensive and looking for more bad things. Stuff you might not have been bothered by are suddenly more annoying because you're already in a negative space. There's a reason comedians use warm up acts. Get the audience laughing, and they'll find their own jokes that much funnier.
A great opening line will often sell the book. At the very least, it'll keep readers reading until they decide yay or nay. I know, it's not fair. But think about all the times you've picked up a book and read the first line or two to see if you wanted to buy it. I know I do it all the time. If I don't like the first page, I don't buy the book. Agents are no pickier than your average reader. (Isn't that a terrifying thought?)
First lines are great opportunities to grab your reader and strut your stuff. A great opening line instantly puts a smile on their face and a "ooo, this is gonna be good," thought into their head.
So how do you write a great first line?
I wish I could give you a magic formula for it, but there isn't one. But I can tell you what I think about before I write one.
Great first lines...
1. Capture the essence of your narrator, whether it's first or third person.
They're the ones telling the story and I like to make that clear from the start. Someone is telling this story and it's not a bland, faceless voice in the background. And it's someone interesting enough that the reader wants to get to know them better.
2. Show off your voice.
Voice is so critical to a story, and it can even make up for some shortcomings a novel might have (or stuff you worry it might have). You can edit for plot, but not so much for voice.
3. Give a sense of the character's immediate problem.
Start off with a bang, so to speak. It doesn't have to be a "hit you over the head" type line, but something that hints at the conflict at hand, either externally or internally.
4. Pose a question readers want to see answered.
This might be as simple as who, or why, but if you can make your reader wonder about something right away, you've already got them hooked. How deeply you hook them is up to the next few lines and the rest of the scene.
These are the things I try to do with every story, and I even try to continue that with every scene and chapter opening (though it's harder to do that all the time). Readers are looking for stories with a great character, good voices, interesting plots. The above four things help provide that. They let you get right in to the story, which is where readers want to be.
Whether you start off strong or edit later, it's a smart idea to make sure your first line is among the best lines in the whole novel.
What's the first line of your current WIP? What's your favorite first line in any book?