by Ellen Buikema
Recently, I attended a webinar where writers submitted their first lines for review by an editor. The editor was straightforward and no-nonsense. She gave several suggestions to help make the first lines better.
I reviewed the first lines I submitted after the webinar ended, keeping in mind all that was said. The more recent manuscript had a reasonably good first line. But the other one, written a few years ago and set aside...good grief. That first line is a sad wispy creature in need of beefing up.
Below are some of the suggestions I gleaned, all of which I plan to use.
Great first lines weave an interesting character. An important rule of writing is to bring out your character and the situation right away. If your main characters are intriguing, the readers will keep turning those pages to find out what they do next.
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
— One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
This next first line gives a lot of information. The narrator is likely an angsty teenager who is well read and somewhat cynical.
“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.”
— The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” –1984 George Orwell
George Orwell’s 1984, written in 1949, presents a dystopian setting with the use of clocks “striking thirteen,” showing the readers that the story happens in a world with different rules.
Think about the first line as a close up to the action. If you’re stuck for a first line, fast forward five minutes into the story and write the first sentence from that perspective. This first line feels like it’s starting smack in the middle of the action.
“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” — The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman
The tone of the first line gives the reader a sense of genre and the age group for which the book is meant. “The green cigarette smoke thwacked Ashley’s brain through the bandages of a broken nose.” A first line that mentions green cigarette smoke fits fantasy, perhaps science fiction, and hints at YA or older readers.
A short first line can be as good as a lengthy one. It may not include a lot of detail, but can pack a mighty punch. Here, the main character is already in a hot mess. “I’m pretty much fucked.”
― The Martian, Andy Weir
Further Reading: here are some great opening lines in literature.
What are your favorite first lines? How do you like to start your stories? Please share your insights with us -- including your first line if you wish -- below in the comments!
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Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA paranormal fantasy.
Find her at https://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.
Top Image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay
Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved
I LOVE first lines! Here's the one from my WIP (can't take credit - Margie Lawson came up with it!)
Today, death rides a bicycle. My bicycle.
First lines are SO HARD. They are my least favorite part to write...because of the pressure.
Early on, I didn't realize how much these first lines impact the readers' interest. I don't worry about them when I get the story going, but it's one of the first edits I get to on the first pass.
Love that line. I'd certainly continue reading.
Ooh Laura, that's an eerie first line. I love it!
I adore first lines. Thank for sharing the tips. A few favorites…
“It was a pleasure to burn.” ~Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
“I was born twice.” Rebekah Crane, The Upside of Falling Down
"The child was pure evil, no doubt about it." ~J.T. Hardy, Blood Ties
"My sister has been dead for nearly fifteen Years when I see her on the TV news." ~Barbara O’Neal, When We Were Mermaids
I've written many, all of them, thus far, not yet published, though I'm ever closer. For fun, I'll share one:
"Talma Loyal tapped a distracting rhythm to purge thoughts determined to summon old screams." Christina Anne Hawthorne, Case of the Deadly Stroll
These are so great, Christina!
Christina, these are all fantastic lines!
Thanks for sharing.
Here's a pitch, not exactly a first line: A medical device goes rogue and transforms its user in the most fantastic ways.
John, I think that line can easily be crafted into a fantastic first line if you chose!
I decided to be brave and see what others think of this opening line for my not yet published contemporary romance.
Georgia stared at her kitchen calendar, arms cinched across her stomach, guilt trapped in her chest.
I love that "guilt trapped in her chest."
Jacquolyn, I have a strong reaction to this line. I love it's power.
I love it! To me, it says Women's fiction, sympathetic heroine, posible ticking clock, multiple layers of conflict. That's a lot to accomplish in one sentence.
Thank you. I should probably write women's fiction next time, but this novella was plotted as a romance. So many books to write . . .
Here's the opening line of my WIP, The Demon's Secret Baby: It was a hell of a party.
One of my favorites is from Charlotte's Web. ""Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
Jacquolyn, that is a mighty compelling question.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
― Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
A beautiful line. I wonder how well this novel would fare if it were new?
Great tips, thanks.
You are most welcome, Pamela! Do you have a favorite first line?
No, not really. I remember lines in movies moreso than books and they're usually not the first lines.
My favorite line from one of my books: "It was a damn fine day to die." Hero is about to engage in a duel.
I like it, Pamela! And for sure it gives insight into the character.
"At Melbourne airport, I nearly made a run for it." From my WIP about a teen banished to live with a father he's never met.
Interesting, Julia! You have me wondering what your protagonist saw, heard, experienced to feel the need to run.
Just the realization that once he gets on that international flight to Central Asia, there will be no way back to the only life he's ever known, even if his father and Central Asia both turn out to be a disastrous destination.
There's so many, but here's one from a kid's book that was close at hand.
'Ramona Quimby hoped her parents would forget to give her a little talking-to.' By Beverely Cleary in Ramona Quimby, Age 8
It immediately makes me think, "Uh-oh. What did Ramona do now?" Which gets me to keep reading to find out!
It's a paragraph, not a line, but my favorite opening of all time is Shirley Jackson's "We Have Always Lived in the Castle":
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.