The Subjectivity of First Lines

13 Feb

Image by cellar_door_films

In April last year I blogged about setting tone and the first line. As part of our workshop month, I want to take a look at what makes a good first line.

I’m not an expert. I don’t give writing advice. I make suggestions. And something I always suggest to death when critiquing it, is the first line of a manuscript.

I want to share with you guys the best piece of advice I read about writing first lines. I can’t remember who gave it or where I read it, but it stuck with me enough that I share it whenever I can.

If your first line can be the first line of any story, think about rewriting it.

I think at the end of the day, first lines are as subjective as an entire novel. But there will always be opinions, and opinions will always be subjective. That’s why they’re called opinions.

I’m going to take a popular example and give you my opinion on it. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

First line: When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.

It’s a fantastic book, I devoured it, but that first line could just as well be me on a winter’s morning. Or you. There’s nothing special about it. And that’s what I want. Special. I didn’t stop me from reading and loving the novel. It just didn’t make me think ‘Now here’s something I’m looking forward to reading’. It’s the kind of thing I read and then forget as the rest of the story pulls me in.

I went to the room I put all my books in and began pulling out novels and reading their first lines. I had a surprisingly difficult time finding lines that agreed with the abovementioned advice, or jumped out at me as special. Here’s a few of what I loved, with reasons why I like/love them so much:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. – Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones.

This. This right here is what I’m talking about. You wouldn’t ever be able to put this first sentence with any other novel. Ever. It stands out. It makes me wonder. I want to know what seven-league boots are and what kind of misfortune it is to be born the first of three.

It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty-three since the scientists perfected the cure. – Delirium, Lauren Oliver.

Another great example for the same reason as above. This first line wouldn’t be able to start any other novel than this one.

Only when the tip of the knife started to shave against the white of his eye like a scalpel about to pierce a boil, did I realise that I was the one holding it. – Hunting Lila, Sarah Alderson.

I love the imagery here. It also does a fantastic job at making me wonder just what the heck is going on here.

There are many perks to living for twenty-one centuries, and foremost among them is bearing witness to the rare birth of genius.  – Hounded, Kevin Hearne.

I don’t know why I like this line so much, but it works. It’s that subjective thing again.

Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot – in this case, my brother Shaun – deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what would happen. – Feed, Mira Grant.

I’ve had this book on my tbr for months now. The first line made me laugh out loud. Guess what? I’m moving it up and will be reading it soon. First line, job well done.

In doing a bit of research for this post, I read that some of the best opening lines are usually short and snappy. For some, yeah I guess that works. If you look at my examples above, I like my lines with personality, and often that requires more than a short sentence. When I look at Feed’s first line, I already get a proper sense of who the main character is. From that alone I’m excited to meet her.

If you’re interested in reading a few more first lines, here’s a post with links to quite a few of them: Links to First Line Posts by Susan Berger

Keep in mind that the kind of books I read are probably different from the kind some of you read. I look at some of the lines other people quote and think ‘I don’t see it’. I know there are a few of you that will look at the lines I quoted and think the exact same thing. That’s okay.

I’ll say it again. First lines are as subjective as entire novels are.

If you’re not entirely happy with your first line, if you feel it needs something different, think about that piece of advice I mentioned at the start of this post. Rewrite if you think it’s necessary.

Need an extra opinion? Please drop your lines into the comment section and either myself of one of the other ladies will comment. Other commenters are welcome to chime in as well.


Posted by on February 13, 2013 in First Lines, Subjectivity, Writing


Tags: ,

9 responses to “The Subjectivity of First Lines

  1. J.A. Ward

    February 13, 2013 at 6:25 am

    The first line of my WIP does not follow your rule but I still like it …it reads:

    “I will not be able to sleep well tonight, but there is no way around that now. ”

    I see how it could be the start of many stories and I get why that doesn’t make it as unique, but I like it for many reasons. One is that I feel it is attention getting at least a bit – we want to know WHY the person won’t be able to sleep tonight so we read on. Also, it has a play on expectations because the main character goes on the explain how she is nervous about turning in her submission for the editor-in-chief position on her high school newspaper so we as a reader believe that is why she can’t sleep – she’s excited. That is what the MC believes too when she says that. Little does she know it will be the first night of many where she has nightmares about killing a fellow classmate. So much so that she has to get involved to figure out what really happened to this person so she can have some peace. Lastly, I like when I GO BACK to read a book that I have already read and when reading the first line, it has so much more meaning because I can see now what the author was doing or alluding to that I couldn’t before and it makes it that much more enjoyable to read again. Any thoughts on this?

    • Jani

      February 13, 2013 at 7:15 am

      Firstly, thank you for not totally agreeing with me. I like having discussions like this.
      That line about the first sentence of any novel is just advice and ties in with what I titled this post. For some it will work, for others not. With me it’s the former, and I like that as much as I like pantsing. It’s just my way of doing it. Finding the right first sentence is almost as hard as finding the right title. You have to be happy with both. You.

      I actually like your line, and it definitely got my attention. It has a sense of inevitability that makes me curious, and after reading what you said about your novel, I want to read the entire thing. it sounds great!

      I’ve never actually gone back after finishing a story, but I think I will do that now. So thank you for that. You made a good point.

      • J.A. Ward

        February 13, 2013 at 7:21 am

        Yes, do go back to stories you have read. Sometimes the first line will really hit you if you remember what the story is about and you will get that “ahh haaahh!” moment. And I do see the reasoning behind your opinion on making it unique to the story/world you are creating – I think that is a great strategy too. I think as writers we have to build up these strategies and then try to find which one works best for the story and mood we are setting. I am glad my first line got you thinking at least 🙂

    • heathermarsten04

      February 14, 2013 at 6:33 am

      What you are saying makes sense – I also go back to see how a book started to see if the author was honest in the set-up of the story. Given your description it is a perfect opening. wonder if a hyphen and dropping the words “but there is” would make it even more foreboding. Still, it does get my attention and I’d want to read on.

  2. heathermarsten04

    February 13, 2013 at 8:49 am

    I hate boys’ games.

    My first line is part of the theme to my whole memoir, Tell me what He did. It is a memoir of a healing journey from abuse. The chapter starts with my playing a game with neighborhood kids and the boys want to play Caveman. I didn’t want to start with abuse, I wanted the readers to like the spunky seven-year-old me. It then moves to my father playing hide the soap in the bathtub, and then goes on to detail other abuse. The ending is good showing real healing is possible. I also love the title for every time my father made an incestuous visit my mother would say, “I heard him in your room last night, tell me what he did.” But it also implies the healing that He (God) did in my life. I hope my first line meets your criterion.

    Have a blest day.

    • J.A. Ward

      February 13, 2013 at 9:05 am

      I LOVE your double meaning in your title and I think the first line also has the double meaning – another example of when the book is over, if someone went back to read that first line they would find it more profound.

    • Tonia Marie Houston

      February 13, 2013 at 11:07 am

      I agree with J.A.- your first line carries that needed tension. Thank you for sharing, Heather.
      It begs the reader to ask questions, and that’s a great start to any story.

    • Jani

      February 14, 2013 at 6:04 am

      Considering the genre and subject matter, your first line totally works. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

  3. heathermarsten04

    February 14, 2013 at 6:36 am

    Thank you for your encouraging comments. I’m glad it works. I moved this line up when I edited my rough draft and it really does seem to work.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: