Thursday, September 01, 2011

On Your Mark. Get Set. Go! Writing the First Line of Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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.

(Here's more on How Much Really Needs to Be in Your Novel’s Opening Sentence?)

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.

(Here's more on How to Hook Your Reader in Every Scene)

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?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
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  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
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  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. What a timely post! For me the first line is important, but even more so is the first page and first scene. I haven't been able to move forward enough because that scene was never right. This week I think I (might have) fixed the problem, which was related to the MC's reactions. She was saying one thing, but doing another. Once I got that in line, things seemed to click. Now I'm going through the subsequent scenes to make sure they're on track as well.

    great post as always!

  2. This is something I will have to keep in mind when I go back and rewrite my first chapter. Thanks for the helpful advice!

  3. I've been working on this. The first line.

  4. For me, writer's block means something is wrong. Someone might be acting out of character, the scene might be lacking something vital or containing something it shouldn't, or I might not have a clear enough sense of what's going on to know where I need to go next.

    I've found that a good first line can carry me for much of a first draft without any planning whatsoever. First lines are like guideposts, reminding me of what, exactly, my goal is with a story. (I'm a naturally concise writer, so I've had a novel's first draft be 17k words. It's over 70k words now.)

  5. I'm with you, Carradee. If I'm stuck, I know it's because there's a problem I haven't found yet. I bet this is true for a lot of writers. Their instincts tell them something is off, but they don't realize it or haven't learned to trust it yet. I'm a firm believer in trusting your instincts.

  6. One of my favourite opening lines is from Blood Rites, one of the Dresden Files novels:

    "The building was on fire, and it wasn't my fault."

    Yes, Harry Dresden sets so many buildings on fire that he has to specify when it's NOT his fault. :-)

    I'm pretty bad at first lines. Closing lines are much easier for me. The opening line for my current WIP is my MC's internal voice asking "Would Dad be proud of me?"

  7. I completely agree with this. :)

    I read your novel The Shifter recently and really enjoyed it. I'm looking forward to when I get to read the sequel.

  8. Favorite first lines? "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." (C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader) or "Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity." (Brandon Sanderson, Elantris).

    Also, I have a review up of The Shifter over at my favorite book review site ( Thanks for writing great books and a great blog!

  9. Some of my favorites come from Dick Francis' books.

    "Agony is socially unacceptable." -Proof

    "Winded and coughing, I lay on one elbow and spat out a mouthful of grass and mud." -Reflex

    "I had told the drivers never on any account to pick up a hitchhiker but of course one day they did, and by the time they reached my house he was dead." -Driving Orders

    Often the second line make them even more punchy.

    "Sadly, death at the races is not uncommon. However, three in a single afternoon was sufficiently unusual to raise more than an eyebrow." -Under Orders

  10. I agree completely with this. BUT I think it's also important to keep in mind that "first impressions" work the opposite way as well.

    Have you ever met someone at a party, and clicked with them instantly? You spend a bit of time talking, get to know them, and then make an arrangement to have coffee later in the week. But this time when you meet them, they seem to have changed. Gone is the well-groomed, witty new friend. In his/her place is a mean-spirited ...person... who wants to bad-mouth everyone else at the party. Not only do you realise that you don't actually want to befriend this person, you feel angry that you were tricked.

    A book I picked up recently had one of the most awesome first lines I'd ever read. I was intrigued, excited, and couldn't wait to get the book home and start reading. But it was all downhill from there. The first page was good, the first chapter was okay, but it only took me until page 25 to hurl the book across the room in anger. It was like the first line had been written by a completely different person to the one who wrote the rest of the book, and I felt stupid for having fallen for its shiny shoes and borrowed diamonds.

    Anyway, point of this rant: Make sure the rest of your story measures up to your first line. A "good" first line that matches your book is better than an "awe-inspiring" first line that sets up expectations you'll never live up to.

  11. Uh-oh, I think I should be worried now. Well, it's too late. I'm out with 3 new agents. I guess we'll see what they say in a few weeks or months.

    I love your advice though and I'm adding this post to my "great advice for writing fiction file."

    BTW - I saw your blog posted on Jeff King's latest post. I'm in there, too, so I thought I'd come on over and take a look and I really like what I see. So now I'm your newest follower. Hope to see you over at my place sometime, too.

  12. Such a helpful and straight-forward post, Janice! I completely concur with you. A lot of the times I go to the bookstore and there's at least 10 books I want to buy, but I set a limit on myself of no more than 2 at a time. What determines which books I take home are usually the first few pages. Sure, there are good ones. But I only buy the ones that I can't stop thinking about after I've put it down and started reading another book.

    The first line of my MS is: "In a world unknown to thievery, things tend to get underrated."

    Not the best, but I'm still working on it!

  13. Paul, one of these days I HAVE to read Dresden. I keep hearing good things about that series.

    Amanda, thanks so much! Blue Fire just came out on paperback, and the third book Darkfall is out October 4. Good timing!

    MK, good lines. Thanks so much for the review! I tweeted it yesterday.

    Amelia, you're right about the second line. That would probably make a good post to huh? You've given me ideas! Love when that happens. Thanks :)

    Jo, oh absolutely. I've read plenty of agents warn folks about spending as much time on chapters 4-end as they do on 1-3 since that's the common submission package. The whole book need to be good.

    Nancy, don't worry, I'm sure it'll be fine. A great first line is one more opportunity to hook, but it isn't the only one. And welcome to them blog! Good to have you here.

    Julianna, thanks! I pick books the same way. My book limits are based on my to-read pile. I can't buy new books until it's in single digits. Except for special events like a book signing. Or book festivals. Sigh. This is probably why my to-read pile is pushing 30 again.

  14. You nailed it Janice: “If you think about it, the first line is like a first impression. You want it to be the best.”

    I agree with the importance of first lines completely, but I’ve also read books that open with fabulous first lines but then seem to peter out in the next few chapters. That might be more of a let down to me (personally) than a mediocre first line and a story that gets better and better…

  15. Great suggestions for that all importzxnt first line. I think the whole first page is critical. Too bad you can't give us a formula.

  16. Melissa, I agree with that. If all the effort is put into the first line, it was effort wasted.

    Natalie, me too! Maybe I should try to come up with one? There has to be some basic truths to a great first line and a first page. I'll have to play with this one.

  17. I was about to give up on continuing my book, but I have discovered this brilliant website. My characters are now cheering me on. It is time to make them alive again.
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    1. Aw, thanks so much. I'm so glad it's been so useful for you :) That's exactly why I do it.

  18. I've written and re-written my opening line to my first novel about a billion times. This is my current iteration: "When you’re born a freak, you learn it's wise to keep your head down and mind your own business. That's exactly what I’d been doing the day it all started, the day my life changed forever."

    1. I like the first part. Is this retrospective? Because if not, you probably don't need the second. Just go right into the scene :) Otherwise you're telegraphing a bit.