Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Day 6: Formulating a Fantastic First Line

Let's say you've been online shopping, looking to trade in your current boyfriend for an upgrade and you've found one you're interested in.  He's attractive, he sounds good on paper - screen - and he's not dead yet.  You decide to set up a date. Sitting at the bar of a fancy restaurant, decked out in you little black dress, you eagerly watch the door, waiting for his arrival. When he finally breezes in he walks over to you, smiles, and says, “You don't mind if I'm married, do you?”

How much longer do you think that date is going to last?

The same principle applies with your book. You can have an attractive cover and an enticing jacket description, but if your opening line doesn't match your book's exterior you may have readers abandoning ship before they've even reached the second paragraph. Or worse still, the readers never get a chance because you can't get an agent to read past the first line.

Let's look at some of the basic elements necessary in crafting a compelling first line:

DISTINCTIVE VOICE.  Using a distinctive voice means showing the original, entertaining way you or your narrating character plan to tell the story.  This could be comical, poetic, old-timey, historic... anything that would make the narration unusual and engaging to read.  A fabulous example is the opening line of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones:
"My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie."
Sarah Domet says on page 40 of How To Write Your Novel in 30 Days, "The first lines of this novel instantly grab the attention of the audience.  First, we get a bit of insight into Susie:  She's young and naive enough to still introduce herself as 'Salmon, like the fish.'  ...[T]he line immediately lends the book a childlike narritave quality."

POINT OF VIEW.  This is, I think, pretty self-explanatory.  The trick is finding the right POV for your story.  If you're struggling with this one try reading other stories in your genre or books that seem similar to yours.  If you like the way the author has used a particular point of view consider it for your own story.  If you feel that important emotions or critical pieces of a plot would be limited by your current pov try writing a scene in a new pov and see how it fits.  For a better understanding of the different points of view and how they are best used I suggest reading "What Your POV Choice Communicates About Your Story," by Alicia Rasley.

BASIC PLOT.  How can you fit a whole plot into one sentence?  Obviously you can't.  But you can begin your story with a conflict or mystery that will make your readers eager to read on for the solution.  This line from Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find shows how conflict can be effective even if its subtle:
"The grandmother didn't want to go to Florida."
That's it.  That's the opening line, and yet we still get to see that Grandma isn't interested in Florida and that there is someone or something opposing her, trying to get her there.  Perhaps minor, but still a conflict that makes me curious to know why Grandma seems to have a problem with sun and beaches.

Laura Whitcomb's A Certain Slant of Light had me engaged from the first line because of the mystery it presented:
"Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if you're dead."
She's dead?  How did that happen?  How is it that someone is able to see her?  All kinds of questions were raised by that simple opening line.  Laura could have started her story by explaining the nature and rules of ghostliness or how a ghost spent her typical day, but she began at the point of interest - the beginning of the plot.  Make sure you start your story at a moment of conflict, not a moment of routine that leads to the conflict.

HINT OF CHARACTERIZATION.  Giving a hint of characterization is basically showing your audience a little preview of your main character's personality.  Even if you prefer to read or write novels filled with action you would find the book rather flat if you never cared about any of the people in it.  (A lot like how I felt watching G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra).  This is why establishing the bond between character and reader is important enough that you want to begin the introductions with line one.

Using the previously mentioned novels we learn that Susie Salmon is probably a young, straightforward kind of a girl and that Grandma may have a bit of a stubborn side.  We may not be like these characters, heck, we may not even like these characters, but because their personalities are coming through already we have to admit that we're driven to find out more about what makes them tick.

ASSIGNMENT:  Making sure to incorporate the above elements, write out 10 to 20 possible first lines for your story.  Let your friends and family members read them and vote on which line strikes them as the most interesting and makes them eager for more.

For two more articles relating to formulating a fantastic first line check out "6 Ways to Hook Your Readers From the Very First Line," by Suzannah Freeman, and "10 Ways to Start Your Story Better," by Jacob M. Appel.

*Day by day assignments and worksheets given during the 30 day challenge come from the Writer's Digest manual "Write Your Novel in 30 Days."  Click here to purchase it!

MY DAY 6:  The real bummer about not writing a blog post every day is that I sort of forget what I did on day six.  My guess would be that I did a bit more research and worked on my outline a bit more.  

The good news is that I've finally figured out a good schedule for writing with kids. I write for two hours while son2 naps and son1 plays on the computer (awesome mom, I know), then I go to the library and write for two more hours after dinner leaving hubs in charge of the kiddos, and finally I come home to write a couple more hours after the boys have been put to bed.  Exhausting?  Yes.  But seeing the progress has made me so excited!


  1. Great post Rachel. Lots of good info and I love your introduction. Glad you're finding time to write. Keep at it.

  2. You must be making a lot of progress with those hours! Good for you!

  3. @Jennifer - Thank you! (I was laughing to myself while writing the introduction... yep, I'm that big of a dork).

    @Mallory - I feel like I've been monopolizing the #powerwritinghour hashtag. I'm excited to try out the new facebook group.

  4. Haha! No such thing. I'm so glad to have you there. :)

  5. Great advice. =] Love it.

  6. Thank you @gogglesandlace! And thank you for leaving a comment; its always nice to know I have readers :)