Your first line is the opening of your story. The reader’s introduction to, essentially, these hours and hours of work which you have completed. The big hook. The main chance you have of drawing your reader’s attention…
Would you rather have a so-so first line? Or a first line that makes your reader want to read more?
Ummm, duh! Option #2!
The first line is basically the most important part of your book to a reader. Not because it is what they will remember the most (chances are, they will remember the plot and characters the most) but because the first line (and the first page) are what make your reader determine whether or not they will continue reading. Thus, your first line needs to be all that it can be. It needs to be memorable. It needs to be FABULOUS.
What does the first line do?
The first line carries an important job in relation to your story. It introduces the plot, setting, character, and tone of the story. It introduces plot by giving us some action or thought to intrigue us; it introduces setting by giving us a sense of whereabouts in the story; it introduces character by diving into Deep POV; it introduces tone by making us feel eerie, happy, intrigued, scared, sad, etc.
Huh. Interesting, isn’t it? So often, first lines fall short of their full potential. They are mediocre and don’t always draw us in as they could/should. But I think we’d all agree that a book that’s worth reading should have a good – if not, FABULOUS – first line. (After all, the first line is the first impression!)
Now, we will point out that sometimes it’s not just ONE line that makes up the first line. In some rare occasions (such as short dialogue), the first line will actually be two or three lines. But in most cases, the first line is… well, the very first line.
The Elements of a Good First Line
Some elements of a good first line are:
- It sets up some form of conflict. Right from the get-go, we need to see that this story is going somewhere. Whether we are shown by action, intrigue, internal thought, intense dialogue, a question, or comical statement… we need to see that there is (or will soon be) a conflict that will carry throughout the story (or else will set up the stage for the rest of the story.)
- It is set apart. Often, the first line will literally be set apart. It will occupy its own paragraph. This is a great way to start off a book because it makes the reader go down to the next paragraph to find out what happens next. In any case, though, the first line needs to be “set apart” – meaning, it needs to give the reader the impression that something is about to happen (or is happening)… but then, the reader faces a decision. “Do I keep reading?” If they choose to continue, they need to see that this book is going to be like an onion that needs to be peeled back one layer at a time. They need to see that this opening line, this conflict, is only a piece of the puzzle that will make up your plot. In other words, they need to be intrigued (often by making them curious.)
- It draws the reader’s attention. Writing something like “it was an ordinary day in June.” Is not going to draw the reader’s attention. However, writing something like “it was an ordinary day in June when I heard the first gunshot” would perk a reader’s interest (though, I will point out that this would be telling. But for an example’s sake, it works.)
- It pushes the reader into the story – completely. Again, when the reader makes the decision to continue reading past the first line – you’ve done a good job. But this is where the first page comes in. Your first line needs to be so in-sync with the rest of your story that it stays with them for awhile as they read. The reader needs to remember that first line so that it pushes the reader forward, further into the story.
How to Write (or Find) Your FABULOUS First Line
Sometimes you may have already written the first line without knowing it – it may be hidden somewhere in the second or third page of your story. Other times you may need to try writing several different openings and first lines to find the right one. I will tell you that, from experience, most of my first lines have been the suggestions of others – they have either found the line within my writing, or tweaked something I have said to make a stellar first-line, or they’ve given me a suggestion of their own. In any case, don’t rush. Write the best one that you can think of for now, and keep it in mind as you write further into your story. If it still doesn’t come to you by the end of your first draft, talk with writer friends (this is a great task for your crit group!) and see what you can come up with. Grab some words that are essential to your story, and move them around on index cards. Do research; check out as many books as you can – read the first lines and see what makes them strong and weak.
There are many different things you can do to come up with that FABULOUS first line. And no matter what, don’t worry! It will come. It may come when you’re taking a shower, brushing your teeth, filing a tax return, or dealing with a screaming baby… but it will come.
For more information on First Lines, check out Lesson #5: Beginnings (Act One) and Lesson #6: The 3 Best Hints or a FANTABULOUS Beginning!
With pen to paper,