Ooh boy. First lines. There’s nothing like facing the blank page, feeling hope and nerves and excitement and fear rush through you. You crack your knuckles, set your fingers on the keyboard, and…
What comes first?
Usually, when I’m writing first drafts, I just start writing. That’s one of the reasons my beginnings get rewritten (a lot). But when I come back around, when I know I can’t put off the dreaded first line anymore, it’s easy to freeze. There’s so much pressure built up around hooking your potential readers/agent/editor instantly. But how can you craft something with that much spark?
On your first pages (I’m planning to write a post about first pages sometime soon), there’s a list of things to establish: character, motivation, conflict. First sentences, though, have more leeway. So take a deep breath!
First sentences should be fun. Make your first line something surprising, something that will catch the readers off guard. We want them to be so intrigued they hunker down in the aisles of the bookstores, thumbing through pages without even realizing time is passing. So be surprising. Be interesting. Above all, don’t be boring.
“Boring?” you say, shaking your head. “I’ve poured my heart and soul into this novel. It’s not boring.”
I believe you! The problem is, agents probably won’t if you have a hook that they’ve seen a million times. “It was a dark and stormy night,” for instance. On that note, I’d suggest you shy away from any weather related openings, unless it’s absolutely crucial to the plot. Like your main character is a storm chaser, or a weatherman, or an ancient god charged with controlling the changing of the seasons. And even then, I’m probably more interested in those characters than in what’s going on in the sky. A “waking up” beginning is often clumped in with the weather beginnings on the list of no-nos, but hey, The Hunger Games pulled it off.
I would also advise you to keep your sentence tight. It doesn’t need to be short, per se, but make sure it doesn’t wind around your point for so long that the reader can’t keep track of where you’re going.
Now, I always say that the best way to learn is through example, so let’s look at some of my personal favorite opening lines. As always, because of my obsession with young adult, we’re going to be examining YA.
“It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.” —Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races
I love this book. It’s one of my all-time favorites. And right from the first line, you can tell that there is going to be death. It also establishes setting—we know exactly what day it is, so that gives us something to which we can anchor ourselves. I think the best part of this line, though, is that it makes us curious. From my own personal experience, November first isn’t any more dangerous that any other day of the year. So why is this narrator so certain someone is going to die? It makes us want to read on.
“Here’s everything I know about France: Madeline and Amelie and Moulin Rouge. The Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, although I have no idea what the function of either is. Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, and a lot of kings named Louis.” —Stephanie Perkins’ Anna and the French Kiss
If you haven’t read this book yet (and you should!), you might not know the tone. But from the very first lines, you can figure it out. It’s funny, it’s relatable, it’s cute, and it feels immensely real. I think my favorite part about this line is how rooted we are in our protagonist’s voice, right off the bat. Plus, I find myself nodding right along with her—that’s just about all I know about France, too! It makes me curious why she’s naming all these French things when she seems to know so little. How does France relate to her?
“The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.” —Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls
Patrick Ness is amazing. His books are gorgeous, start to finish. And I love this opening. There’s something eerie and haunting about the matter-of-fact way he tells you about monsters. Not only do we know that we’re in a world with monsters, but we learn that these monsters have a pattern, a way of doing things, a time they show up. Plus, we can already sense a poetic rhythm in Ness’ prose.
“A word from your sponsor: This book begins with a plane crash. We do not want to worry you about this.” —Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens
Here’s yet another book I’ve read and reread more times than I can count. It’s just so funny and so real every single time. One of my favorite things about this novel is that it has a somewhat unusual structure. It’s written almost like a reality TV show, with breaks for commercials and interjections from a somewhat “big brother” corporation. If you’re writing something with a unique structure, do what Libba Bray did here! Start the story off with evidence of the way you’ll be writing the book. I also love that she establishes A) this story somehow has sponsors, B) this story will begin on an exciting note (plane crashes! Yikes!), and C) this narrator seems to be rather creepy and controlling.
“Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.” —Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys
Okay, okay, so I put Maggie Stiefvater on here twice. Sue me. She’s just really good with opening lines. I love this one, because there is absolutely no beating around the bush. It’s a terrible truth, and it’s right out there in the open: Blue Sargent is going to kill her true love. That’s it. There it is, conflict and character, right in the first line. And you know what? It sounds interesting to me! It’s enough to make me keep reading.
Do you have any favorite first lines? What’s the first line of your manuscript?