Wednesday, November 14, 2012

First Lines

As I move through the revision process of my current W.I.P., I am again haunted by the dreaded First Line. Without a doubt it is that magical first line that makes you want to read the second, third fourth, etc., all the way up to page 482, or wherever the book ends.

So, here I am, once more, asking myself, and you, what makes a great first line? Is it something funny? “If your teacher has to die, August isn't a bad time of year for it.” The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts, Richard Peck. A question that begs for an answer?"Where's Papa going with that axe?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast." Charlotte's Web, E.B. White. Or maybe something mysterious? On the third night, the day after her father died, Liesl saw the ghost. Liesl & Po, Lauren Oliver. What makes a first line stand the test of time to become a classic? Call me Ishmael. — Moby-Dick, Herman Melville(1851)

First lines come with no pressure at all: They're like chess, screw up the first line, screw up the book. See? No pressure at all *biting nails* Of course a great first line must be followed up with a bunch of other great lines so you don't create what some agents call the ten page drop off. This occurs when the author polishes the first ten pages, (because that's what most agents/editors ask to see), until they shine like a new diamond, then rush through the other 500 or so pages, leaving the reader sorely disappointed with the story. 

I think the first line must come from your heart. It must envelop the entire flavor of your story from the first word, to the last. To me, the first line is like the first taste. When a reader picks up your book, they are looking for something. It could be something funny, or mysterious, or haunting, but they are looking for something. They are looking for words that match the cover. Just like when I  venture into Baskin Robbins, I want ice cream, not pizza.

When the reader flips to the first page, and prepares to feast with their eyes, they want it to taste like what they ordered. If I order Rocky Road, I want to taste chocolate, nuts and marshmallows, not strawberries and cream. Also, I think the first line must be honest, true to the story, the entire story, all the way to the last page. You can't give them an awesome first line about ice cream, then write a story about pizza. 

I believe that is what makes a great first line. A line that gives the reader what they hoped for when they pulled your book off the shelf.

Of course, these are just the musings of an aspiring author. I'd love to hear your thoughts as well as your favorite first lines.

If this post peaked your interest in great first lines, check out this list of the 100 best opening lines for children's books. 

P.S. Be sure to stop by next Wednesday, when I'll be sharing my thoughts on great closing lines. 


Kyra Lennon said...

Excellent post!

First lines are my nightmare. When I'm reading, I usually like something witty or intriguing - unfortunately, I haven't worked out how to write them yet lol!

S.P. Bowers said...

First lines are important but sometimes I think we put too much pressure on ourselves. It's so easy to stress about that opener.

T. Drecker said...

Great first liners are great, but I sometimes think there's too much emphasis on them. Best-sellers aren't there because of those first few words. They're there because everything is good.
I've never read or stopped reading a book because of the first sentences - the first couple chapters, yes. But not the first sentences.

Lynn Proctor said...

i don't think you can overestimate the importance of that first line---i kinda like to do them :)

Melissa said...

Excellent post! I sweat the first line - heck - the first page, too.

Thanks for visiting my blog. :)

cleemckenzie said...

I often write my first lines after I write The End and am ready to send the ms. to my readers. I agree that the opening lines are amazingly important and so often the most difficult to get just right.

Tara Tyler said...

i've been working on myfirst lines lately too...tough little buggers that mean so much! good luck with yours!

Scribbles From Jenn said...

@ Kyra, thanks. You have a great voice, keep writing what you're writing.

@ S.P.,pressure is a word I understand well when it comes to first lines.

@T. Drecker, your comment made me laugh; imagining readers putting a book down after the first line :D

@ Lynn, I like them too, which is why I think about mine far too much.

@ Melissa, You are right, first lines, pages, chapters...

@ Clee, I too take another look at the first line after I've written the end. It's amazing how clear things are by then.

@ Tara, thank you! I need all the luck I can get :D

Johanna Garth said...

Nothing like a little pressure! Now I need to go check my first line again (we'll just pretend I don't have it memorized;)

mooderino said...

Quotable first lines are pretty rare, I think, while great books are plentiful. I think that tells you something.

Moody Writing

Suzanne Furness said...

First lines are important especially when trying to hook an agent or publisher. But then so are all the other words in the book too! Good luck with yours :)

sydneyaaliyah said...

I have been obsessed with first lines in my current project. I found in my last novel the first lines all said something about my MC woke up or my MC rolled over and got up,or it was 10 am and my MC didn't want to get up. haha.

sydneyaaliyah said...

I have been obsessed with first lines in my current project. I found in my last novel the first lines all said something about my MC woke up or my MC rolled over and got up,or it was 10 am and my MC didn't want to get up. haha.

Marcia said...

Wonderful post! And that line from Richard Peck IS awesome. That ice cream makes me want to lick my screen. :D

Scribbles From Jenn said...

@ Johanna,loved your comment. I think we all have those first lines memorized.

@ Mooderino, thanks for sharing. Wonderful food for thought.

@ Suzanne, thank you. Luck is always good.

@ Sydney, I've had those moments too. Thank goodness for the word search function so I can catch them before someone else does.

@ Marcia, thank you. I love Richard Peck. Thanks also for the laugh. I often do these posts late at night, when everything is closed, and have had a few lick the screen episodes myself.

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