First Lines

Katherine Longshore 1 Tuesday, April 23, 2013
A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Breakout Novel Intensive workshop run by Free Expressions and featuring the amazing Donald Maass.  Over the course of the week, we covered character arc, story arc, theme, character development, raising the stakes, micro-tension, exposition, dialogue--you name it, we covered it.  And we spend probably two hours on one of the days talking about first lines.

Think about it.  My second novel, TARNISH, weighs in at about 93,000 words.  The first line is ten words long.  That's what?  1/9300 of the book.  And yet we spent approximately 1/13 of our class time talking about how to write one.

What I got out of that class?  First lines are very, very important.

The first line of a novel can be four words long or ten or less or more or anywhere in between.  But it has to cover so much ground.  It can create a question.  Create tension.  Create intrigue.  It establishes the voice--of the narrator, of the novelist.  But most of all, it has to engage the reader enough that he wants to read the next line, too.

Look at some of these:

"Where's Papa going with that axe?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

I'm sure we all recognize this one.  It's trotted out at just about every children's writing conference workshop on first lines (or first pages or first chapter).  Why?  Because it's a killer first line.  Where is Papa going with that axe?  And, more importantly, why?

There once was a boy named Milo who didn't know what to do with himself--not just sometimes, but always.

This is from one of my favorite novels of all time, THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH by Norton Juster. It's got the same audience as Charlotte's web and it also uses third person past tense, but do you see how different the voice is?  But it makes you want to read on, because it sets up the entire premise of the book--what does Milo do with himself?

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

The time-honored advice is never begin your novel with your character waking up (or eating breakfast).  Yet here is another one.  Suzanne Collins starts THE HUNGER GAMES by breaking the rules, and nailing it.  OK, Katniss is waking up.  But why is the other side of the bed cold?  Who is missing?  WE have to keep reading to find out.

What about the following first lines?  Can you guess?  And, more importantly, do all of them make you want to read on?  If not, why?

1.  He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.

2.  It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

3.  When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.

4.  It was a dark and stormy night.

5.  The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.

And a bonus line, because today is the author's birthday:

6.  Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.

During the break in that class period, however, I got into a discussion with the writer sitting next to me. We agreed that yes, having a killer first line is very important.  But what about the first page?  As a reader, I almost always go on to the next line.  And the next.  Before I decide if I want to read the rest of the book.  (though there have been a couple of books that I have put down because I hated the first line, but this post isn't about my personal quirks.)

Yes, first lines are important.  But so is the first page.  And so is the rest of the book.  Every page needs to vibrate with tension.  Every page needs to move the story forward.  Every line needs to further the narrative voice.  It's a tall order, but you're up to it.

Answers:  1.  The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway.  2.  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.  3.  To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  4.  A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle.  5.  East of Eden by John Steinbeck.  6.  Richard III by William Shakespeare.


Of course, I'm not surprised by this, but THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH is one of my absolute favorites as well!

Great post, and great point, re: first lines being important but only a small part of the challenge! So true. -- Lorin

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