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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.