Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 23, 2016

Nail That First Line!

Darynda Jones' First Grave on the Right (click on the photo to check out this amazing book)

Darynda Jones' First Grave on the Right (click on the photo to check out this amazing book)

I just taught a class on  Beginning Pages recently, so I’ve been thinking a lot about first lines.

 Stephen King had something to say about the magnitude of a novel’s first line:

“An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story,” he said.

“It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

Preach it, Steve.

I’m not saying a killer first line will land you an agent, get your book sold, or make it a NYT bestseller. But it sure won’t hurt your chances. And I’d make a case that a book that achieves all the above, more often than not, has a great first line.

Why is that? A first line is a promise to the reader, telling them what kind of book this is. What your voice is. Maybe who the main character is. A good first line will pull a reader into a story.

But how do you do that? Here are some suggestions of where to start:

  • Irony - A contradiction or opposite of some kind, something unexpected.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

You just know from those 23 words, how Jane really feels about this ‘universal truth’. And you could guess how she’ll handle it in the book, right? Jane has just shown you her voice - snark, Victorian style.  BTW, many will argue to the death that this was the best first line ever written. Let’s not go there – we've a lot more to do.

  • Catalyst -  The catalyst is what sets your story in motion. A knock at the door, a phone call, please, just don’t start with a dream!

“When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it's never good news.” Anthony Horowitz, Stormbreaker

“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.” Paul AusterCity of Glass

  • Comparison - A simile or metaphor.

“Unlike the typical bluesy earthy folksy denim-overalls noble-in-the-face-of-cracker-racism aw shucks Pulitzer-Prize-winning protagonist mojo magic black man, I am not the seventh son of the seventh son of the seventh son.” Paul BeattyThe White Boy Shuffle

  • Dilemma 

“Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.” Roxane Gay, An Untamed State

“He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.” Virginia Woolf, Orlando

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we understood the gravity of our situation.” Donna Tartt, The Secret History

  • Question – But be careful using this; it’s been used SO much that has to be fresh and intriguing. NO clichés!

 “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.” Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays

  • Intriguing Character 

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye

  • Intriguing Premise  The line itself may not mean much, but after reading it, you HAVE to read on!

“Don’t look for dignity in public bathrooms.”  Vitor LaValle, Big Machine

 “Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.” Dennis Lehane, Until Gwen

“They shoot the white girl first.” Toni Morrison, Paradise

 “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Here’s mine, from The Sweet Spot:

The grief counselor told the group to be grateful for what they had left. After lots of considering, Charla Rae decided she was grateful for the bull semen.

I screwed up with that line. I wasn’t going for funny. I didn’t even know it was funny until, when I read it at a writer’s retreat, Tessa Dare snorted wine through her nose. See, bucking bull semen is a legitimate industry – just as racehorse semen is. And Charla Rae owns a ranch where they raise and train bucking bulls. The book is emotional, and deals with grief and forgiveness. So, in this case, the first line breaks its promise to readers (unless they know the bull industry). But you know what? When people meet me, they mention that line. They actually remember it. So I can live with that.

I may not have the perfect first line when I start a book, but if I don’t, it niggles at the back of my mind until I come up with one – even if it’s after I’ve written half the book!

I knew I didn’t have the best first line for my current WIP – it’s a hard-hitting, right to die novel. Here was my first shot at it:

Funny, how knowing the exact time and place of my death makes me exquisitely aware of being alive. 

It’s not bad; it raises a question in the reader’s mind. It’s in the voice of an upper-middle class scientist and professor, which the protagonist is.

But I knew it wasn’t a killer first line. Enter the brilliant Margie Lawson. On a Writer’s Cruise (yes, it was as amazing as that sounds, and they're having another this year! You can check it out here), she worked with me on my first scene. Together, we came up with the first line:

Today, death rides a bicycle. My bicycle.

Oh yeah.

So, do you have a favorite first line for us?

Either one of yours, or a memorable one from another author?

79 comments on “Nail That First Line!”

  1. Marley was dead, to begin with. -- A Christmas Carol

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. -- A Tale of Two Cities

    It was a bright, cold day in April, and all the clocks were striking thirteen. -- 1984

    It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, a shot rang out! -- Snoopy typing on top of his doghouse. I'm not sure where this originally comes from, but it's just a reminder that not all memorable first lines are good.

  2. I struggle with openings all the time. Because my doctor helped with research for one of my books, I gave him a copy. He admits he never read it (not his genre by far), but he DID read the opening line, and he still mentions it every time I have an appointment. I don't think it's memorable to any one but him, but I'll take it.

    From Dangerous Connections: "No matter what Jinx’s Klingon-spouting nephew said, today was not a good day to die, even if it wasn’t his own ass on the line.":

  3. I'm still hashing out mine, but I'm aiming for something along these lines:

    "The drasth drifted through the air above the landing field, its body a bright blue squiggle between outstretched wings, and Somber wished desperately that he was still riding it."

    It's a fantasy book, obviously.

  4. The first line of my current project is dialogue.

    “If you’re going to nag me, you’re going to have marry me.”

    1. Jess - this guy has a story, right? What if you told us some of that? Like (I know this won't fit your book, but it's just an example), 'So far today, he'd crashed his car, gotten fired, and dropped scalding copy in his lap-the Universe was...'. What do you think?

  5. I love first lines! Here are a few of my favs.

    Juliet Naked, by Nick Hornby

    They had flown from England to Minneapolis to look at a toilet.

    Risk, by Dick Francis

    Thursday, March 17, I spent the morning in anxiety, the afternoon in ecstasy, and the evening unconscious.

    Ten Big Ones, by Janet Evanovich (2004)

    The way I see it, life is a jelly doughnut. You don’t really know what it’s about until you bite into it. And then, just when you decide it’s good, you drop a big glob of jelly on your best T-shirt.

    Fear No Evil by Allison Brennan (2007)

    The sick and depraved had voted: death by stabbing.

    Back When We Were Grownups, Anne Tyler (2001)

    Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.

  6. Laura, great advice, as always! Thanks.

    WIP first lines from BLOSSOM ON THE ROAD OF DREAM: “Do you think we’ll get away with it?” My voice wasn’t the least bit wobbly, though my stomach jerked with seismic shocks.

    WIP first lines from BOMBSHELLS AND BEAUTIFUL STRANGERS: “Me and Marilyn Monroe. Me? Penny Parker?” The words ricocheted in Penny’s head like a bullet in one of her favorite spaghetti westerns.

  7. I struggle with beginnings...am beginning planning for a new story. So far:
    "Tears burn. She could almost see the words 'The End' floating behind them as they walked quickly away to his car, Stu holding Jade's hand as Jade clutched her teddy bear. Neither looked back. Why would they?"

    1. Celia, it's intriguing - but remember the reader doesn't know where they are, or who the people are. How old is Jade? Is she a child? the teddy bear is a hint, but we don't know what to picture. Walked quickly away from what? Do you see that we have no idea of where we are?

      Love the 'neither looked back. Why would they?'

      1. I usually give way too much info, so here I have clearly swung to the other extreme. Eventually I'll balance out. I also really liked the last two sentences, and wondered about starting with them, and then... Damn, then I only think of backstory for a few paragraphs. Sigh. Thanks for your comments, Laura.

  8. You guys almost always post a blog on my own personal "writing struggle of the week" here. It's like therapy. Thanks for this one, Laura.

    Of course, this week, I've been struggling hard with going back over that first line. It nags at me daily and I've googled so many other great first lines from just about every genre, hoping they'd trigger something that rings true for my story or inspire something to make me have an "aha" moment. Hasn't happened yet, but I've read a ton of other great first lines and I love Stephen King's quote on that. I try to keep it at the forefront of my search for a first line. It's an invitation to hear a story.

    I think first lines are like love (and that's not just because I like to read / write romance). You can position yourself to be open to recognizing what a great opportunity looks like, but it often happens when you're not expecting it. Anything too planned or manipulated doesn't create a good first line or beginning of a relationship and you don't always know what you're looking for until it clicks.

    Ok. Going to go work on my writing. No more romantic musings on first lines for now.

    1. Rachel, that's exactly right. It's like when you're shopping for something - I was shopping for new dishes once - and it took me two years. I couldn't have told you what I was looking for, but I knew I'd know it when I saw it. And I did!

      Hope you find your dishes soon!

  9. Great post! I'm inspired 🙂 One of my favorite opening lines comes from Natural Born Charmer by Susan Elizabeth Phillips:
    It wasn't every day a guy saw a headless beaver marching down the side of the road, not even in Dean Robillard's larger-than-life world.
    Tantalizing 🙂

    For my WIP, The Beast Within:
    Her skin was soft. Tender as the belly of a kitten. And just as fragile.

    1. Jackie - I've heard that first line before - not one you can forget!

      On yours, do you need, 'was soft'? It's telling, and the description next, 'shows' it much better!

  10. Here's a memorable opening to a terrific memoir by John Sellers called The Old Man and the Swamp:

    "I have nothing against snakes, provided that they're hundreds of miles away from me. And I have nothing against my dad, given the same set of conditions."

  11. As a grey dawn broke over the ancient fort that overlooked the seaport of Havengard in the domain of Westholm in the land of Setenkar, Prester Raba Ben Hornstraw, who had not taken food for three days, had one more task to perform before his body could be granted its final rest.

    1. Whoa, Another! You throw so much at us, so fast, that I'm lost! How about starting simple, and then adding bits, to orient the reader. I think you can do it easily by reordering. How about,

      'Ben Hornstraw hadn't taken food in three days, had one task to perform before his body could have it's final rest.'

      Pull us into the story - by showing us the character, and telling us something intriguing first - then set the scene. What do you think?

  12. Here is the opening line to my WIP. Grace is lost in the bush after surviving a terrifying car accident. She is about to be attacked by wild dogs. Maybe I need to add some more intensity to it. (By the way, how do we get our photo on here? Thanks. 🙂 )

    “Ouch!” Delicate beauty of the tiny, orange and yellow lantana flowers had caught Grace’s eye, but the short, jagged thorns on the overhanging branches tore at her bare skin.

    1. Julie - I love that she's lost in the bush after a car accident - those are high stakes! Why not put some of that in your first line? We'd HAVE to read on!

      1. I'm thinking of a few words or phrases in italics of her sketchy memory of the accident. EG, The scream. The dust. The tumbling. The pain. The petrol. The explosion. (Something to that effect.)

  13. My all-time absolute opening line is from "Secrets of the Dead" by Caleb Pirtle III. It is: Even the late October sky wore black to her funeral." Near the end of the book, there's a very similar, though different, matching line.

  14. This is from my book, "All My Father's Secrets" -

    I know something's happened as soon as I see Lachie's crapped out car fishtailing up the gravel driveway, flinging stones and flashing it's headlights at couples hooking up in the bushes.

    When I read your opening line Laura, I didn't actually laugh. Not because it's not great (which it is) or because I know anything about bull riding but because I know a little about the dairy industry. I instantly thought she must be a farmer with cows to inseminate.

    1. You're my peep, Littlemissw! You're the FIRST! 😉

      I love your line - it leaves a great question in the reader's mind. I think it can be tightened just a bit though. Short is punchy. How about:

      'I know something happened when Lachie's crapped out car fishtails up the gravel drive, flashing headlights and filching stones at the couples hooking up in the bushes.'

      What do you think?

  15. Such a helpful post with a full critique group in the comments! These lines from my WIP were originially in the middle of a chapter. A great editor suggested pulling them to the front:

    Madge rang the bell of the Marvel house and pulled back her shoulders, bracing for whatever might come. She hoped these people weren’t huggers.

    1. Love the humor hit - and way to clue in the reader to a clue about the portage's character that I'll bet is prominent in the novel!

      I think it may have more impact if she tightened her stomach - I think it fits better with 'bracing'.

      Better? Your choice. Nice first line!

  16. J.D. Salinger gets my top vote! I love to play with opening lines. The favorite from my books is this one: "With a flick of her mermaid's tail, Shelly emerged from the deep coastal waters holding the dead body of victim number two."

    Great post, Laura!

  17. The only opening line I ever remember is from Stephen King. The Dark Tower.
    "The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed."

    I'll share a couple of my WIP opening lines.

    From Charlotte's Shadow:
    Charley picked up her makeup brush and tried to hide the evidence of the night before, the bruise left by her husband's fist.

    From Katherine's Consequence:
    If only Katherine had not stopped to look. But she did look, and now two people were dead and her life had changed forever.

    From (as yet untitled)
    Suzie was dressed to kill. Tight fitting top, lycra leggings, rubber boots. Around her waist a utility belt contained the tools of her trade. Restraints, bone saw, scalpels.

    1. Wow, Allison - great lines, but I like your last, best!

      I'd make one tiny change: 'the utility belt around her waist contained....' It's a bit smoother, don't you think?

  18. Here is mine, from Operation Mermaid: The Project Kraken Incident.

    Agent Starling and I went to the residence of Michelle Bergin,
    [address redacted], San Diego, CA. This was the day after the Great
    Transformation. We were informed by the Secretary that there were 4
    new mermaids in San Diego that required our personal attention.
    We knocked on the door.

  19. Great post! This is from my current WIP --

    Miriam Jones didn’t want to die, but the threat implied that something would happen to her beautiful grandbabies or that she herself would suffer—IF—she didn’t do what she was told.

    1. Kori - you say she didn't want to die, then imply that it would be worse if something happened to her grandbabies. If that's true, why not make it clearer - Miriam Jones didn't particularly want to die, but when the rest implied something would happen to her beautiful grandbabies...

      See what I mean? Miriam would have our sympathy right away, because she cares more about her grandbabies than her own health.

      Would that fit with your story?

  20. Love the focus on those first lines! And here are two books I bought on the strength of their first lines (and the rest of the books delivered):

    "Trevor Dunham talked quite a bit about his man part before he drowned." - THE LIFEBOAT CLIQUE, Kathy Parks, YA contemporary

    "Birthday parties are a lot like pelvic exams—a little uncomfortable, a little awkward, a little too personal, but an unavoidable yearly nuisance—like a Pap Smear, only with presents." - THE BEST MEDICINE, Tracy Brogan, contemporary romance

    And from my novel out on submission, SHARING HUNTER, a YA contemporary:

    "When Chloe suggested sharing a boyfriend our last semester of high school, I didn’t completely freak."

  21. “It’s hotter’n hell out here,” Bonnie yelled at Hank as she came out the screen door, letting it slam shut behind her.
    “I bet it ain’t,” he said, and laughed as he reached for the glass of iced tea from her.
    Lines from a flash fiction story I wrote, taken from a conversation I overheard. I may write half a dozen using the lines of dialogue. I love those lines!

  22. I so regret I cannot remember the title or the author (though he was prolific), but my fav.first line is "I became a sword swallower the night Flamo the Magnificent blew himself up."

    1. Love this one, Jeanne! I am still chuckling, which isn't an easy thing to get me to do this afternoon.

  23. Thanks for the great lesson, Laura. And for sharing your expertise with suggestions to improve our first lines!

  24. Thanks so much Laura. I love this post. It really has the creative juices flowing. Here's my first line from a WIP on a children's book about Buckminster Fuller:

    "As a kid, Bucky never ran the fastest, jumped the farthest, or got the best grades."

  25. Laura,

    What a great post! I read both this one and your Last Line post that you posted today April 21st. Awesome!

    I know you're asking for first lines but I wanted to mention these two first paragraphs
    of White Oleander. I have always been struck by them:

    “The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves. We could not sleep in the hot dry nights, my mother and I. I woke up at midnight to find her bed empty. I climbed to the roof and easily spotted her blond hair like a white flame in the light of the three-quarter moon.

    “”Oleander time,” she said. “Lovers who kill each other now will blame it on the wind.” She held up her large hand and spread the fingers, let the desert dryness lick through. My mother was not herself in the time of the Santa Anas. I was twelve years old and I was afraid for her. I wished things were back the way they had been, that Barry was still here, that the wind would stop blowing.

    Also, the last lines of this book, tie into these paragraphs. Beautiful way to poetically weave it into the book and end with it too.

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