Monday, March 14, 2011

The First Line

I’ve been editing my book recently and thinking about first lines. They have the power to draw you in or turn you off. So I wanted to do a little research using some of the books on my bookshelf that are in the same genre (YA) as the book I just finished writing.

Here are the ones that I found:
“For the record, I wasn’t around the day they decided to become Dumb.”
Five Flavors of Dumb, Antony John

I haven’t read Five Flavors of Dumb yet, but I’m expecting the narrator to be a little sarcastic and funny. And I’m really, really curious about a band that would name themselves Dumb and the girl that comes into their lives.

“I guess I kept hoping some kind of miracle would happen.”
Bloom, Elizabeth Scott

“Getting dressed was always the hardest part of the afternoon.”
Pretties, Scott Westerfeld

In Scott Westerfeld’s book, the Pretty world is almost completely consumed with caring about appearances. He sets their world up perfectly with just one sentence. When what to wear is your biggest problem (and you’re not even getting dressed until afternoon anyway) then I get really curious about what’s going to happen to shake this all up.

“My lady and I are being shut up in a tower for seven years.”
Book of a Thousand Days, Shannon Hale

“There are times in life when it’s important not to trip: when you’re going for the tie-breaking lay-up in a basketball game, when you’re walking down the aisle on your wedding day, and when your English teacher asks you to hand out textbooks—and you’re about to give one to Ethan Lancaster.”
Life, Love, and the Pursuit of Free Throws, Janette Rallison

Janette Rallison’s book is just as hilarious as the first sentence would lead you to believe. With that one line she shows that the mc is a basketball player and in love with Ethan Lancaster—both things which drive the entire plot.

"Everyone knows I’m perfect.”
Perfect Chemistry, Simone Elkeles

“There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.”
Holes, Louis Sachar

As for Holes, Sachar already has me asking questions and wanting to read more. Why is there no lake at Camp Green Lake? (And green lake, yuck!) The tone of this book stays completely true to his first sentence. The whole book just drips with irony.

What do these lines tell us?
They give us voice. They give us tone. They tell us about the character or the world the character lives in (sometimes both.) They draw us in, either by leaving us wondering, or because we already love the character’s voice.

My current first line is this:
I untied the rope from my harness with tingling fingers, flexing them as I walked away from the rock wall.
I think it lacks punch.
So I rewrote it to this:
With twenty feet of gray rock above me and forty feet to the hard ground below, I couldn’t help but wonder how Brian had convinced me to do this.
But I'm worried that it starts my story in the wrong place. I'd have to do flashback to tell you how she got there, and I don't want to do that.
So, back to the drawing board. If I come up with anything good today, I'll update.


  1. I love to do that with first lines, too. Sometimes I'll go through the books on the bestseller table and only read first lines. I agree the one from Holes is perfect. It totally sets up the book.

    With your first example, I think it would work if you stopped at "harness." Sets up a lot of questions--is this a slave trying to escape? Something not human?

    The second one has the disadvantage of starting with a preposition. I just read an agent rant against openings that start with a dependent clause. What about something like "Brian lied about the rocks..."?

    Like I know what your book is about. It's just that I've been playing with my own opening page all day, so I'm in first sentence mode.

    Thanks for commenting on my blog. I love the look of yours!

  2. Wow, this a really good post to get me thinking. My question is this: most of those first lines are in first person perspective. Is it harder to make a truly grabbing first line if it's in third person?

  3. Anne-- Thanks for your input. I didn't love either first line (thus the research) and I think you pinpointed why they weren't working for me. My book is about a girl who is best friends and climbing partners with her brother intil a traumatic brain injury changes his personality.

    My new first line is this:

    I still had time to back out of this.

    Holes and Pretties are both in third person pov. The others are first person because that's what my wip is (so I've been reading a lot of 1st person novels lately.) So I would say that all the same principles apply. Even in third person, there would still be voice and tone to convey. (you can email me your first line, if you'd like)

    And really, anything that grabs the reader and makes them want to keep reading, is a great first line.

    Thanks for your commments.

  4. You know what's interesting? I'm adding two books to goodreads based on first lines (well, and the fact YOU posted them) they really are that important.

    I'm excited to see what you do with your MS - which I already love...


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