First Lines

What is fiction? It’s a variety of subject matter, themes, and techniques and could become so broad as human experience itself. Is the nature of your fiction dramatic, concrete and specific, generally representative, instructs and entertains, related to life, or creative and imaginative? With any approach to writing a novel, there must be a first line out there for you to create. How important is the first line of a novel? Is it more important than the first page? The first chapter? What about the rest of the novel? Is the ending important? Character arch? There is so much more to consider. I can understand that a first line is what a reader finds after the title and becomes the first thing… the first impression. The blind date analogy: what is she wearing, hair style, and makeup. Do I always notice these things? Not specifically. Is this the real person? Is she styled like this all day and every day? Or is this a special occasion. Some people don’t date often and this is special. Is the first line like some sort of veil of decoration? Are you hiding your flaws and putting your best foot forward? What about the rest of the novel? Once you get to know someone, hair and makeup become trivial. One sentence can certainly display point of view and tense. It can show tone, style, theme and subject matter. You really can’t do too much with just the one line. Introducing character, plot and setting might be too much to ask. I think that’s why the work of art is called a novel. The most important single line should be located within the text where it has impact on story, plot and character. My theory is that all lines are important. The first is just that: first. If this first impression is important to you, then your first line is probably rewritten 38 different times with 12 different meanings. Could you leave your first first line in place? Sure, but by the time you complete the novel and you know what it is about and what it says, the first line can then be crafted to fit. A lot of writers “by the seat of their pants” and without a strict outline… might have no idea where they are going. They start writing. What does the first line mean on Day #1 and then what does it mean months or years later when the... read more

Characters that Steal Our Hearts in the First Lines…..

Picture books may initially be pulled from the shelf because of cover illustrations. Unless the character steals the heart of the reader, even the finest illustrations won’t turn a new story into an old favorite. Thinking back to my childhood, more than a half-century ago, I can still remember the first lines of Madeline (Ludwig Bemelmans, 1939). On the cover, two rows of little girls in yellow are followed by a lady, holding tightly to one little girl. But the first lines of that classic introduced a character I would relate to throughout life… who captured my heart. “In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. They left the house at half past nine… The smallest one was Madeline.” My mother never tired of reading the story, in hopes that Madeline’s example would channel my independence into courage not taught to women in those days. And it did! Characters in picture books, usually containing fewer than 500 words, must connect to the reader’s heart immediately. Some old favorites and new reads illustrate my point. The Polar Express (Chris Van Allsburg, Houghton Mifflin, 1985) “On Christmas Eve, many years ago, I lay quietly in my bed. I did not rustle the sheets. I breathed slowly and silently. I was listening for a sound……” What sound? How could the boy be so quiet on Christmas Eve? The sound must be really important. And so it was……as the final line circles back to the reader’s wonderings. “Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe.” That boy continues to inspire children, teachers and parents to believe impossible is nothing. The Pout-Pout Fish (Deborah Diesen, Scholastic, 2008) “Deep in the water where the fish hang out, lives a glum gloomy swimmer with an ever-present pout.” This cranky, sulking fish is approached by other underwater creatures with advice on how to cheer up. But Pout-Pout fish is convinced that cranky is his destiny…..until a shimmery fish plants a kiss on him and swims away. His transformation to a Kiss-Kiss fish is instantaneous. Pout-Pout fish turns the corners of fussy children’s mouths downside up in seconds and gives children a reason to laugh even on their most messy, horrendous, down-and-out, really awful days. Chicken Dance (Tammi Sauer, Sterling, 2009) “Tonight Barnyard Talent Show – Grand Prize: Tickets to Elvis Poultry in Concert – The Final... read more

Grabbing your audience…a glance at the first line.

When I read a book, there’s a good chance I’m going to read past the first paragraph, regardless of its quality. Then, because I’m an author, I’m going to get at least five to ten pages in—maybe even more—before I decide whether the book is for me. And that’s because I know how difficult it is to be a writer and how challenging those first few pages can be. But even more challenging is hitting the right note with that very first line or two. It’s not a must do, but a gripping beginning pulls me in and many times, never lets me out of a story before the end. It’s like the author is promising me that the rest of the book will be at least as good as those very first sentences, and I can’t quit until I know whether he or she has made good on that guarantee. So here’s a few of my favorites. Perhaps you can see how they match up to your favorite first lines, or whether the first line of something you’re working on has as much punch to it. “The Garretts were forbidden from the start. But that’s not why they were important.” These first two sentences, taken from Huntley Fitzpatrick’s young adult novel My Life Next Door, had me with that one intriguing word: forbidden. Knowing the main character is a girl, I can already see some Romeo and Juliet type situation unfolding, and yet, I’m also being told that’s not going to be the real issue. Hooked? Definitely. “They took me in my nightgown.” The opening line from Between Shades of Gray lets you know the, ah, bad stuff has hit the fan right away. Nothing good ever comes from someone being taken in the middle of the night, and a nightgown shows that she is probably home and being pulled from safety. The line encompasses the whole uncertainty and tension of the story, and even though the book is highly emotional, it is a journey I’m glad I took. “It began the night we died on the Kamikaze.” This line from Neal Shusterman’s Full Tilt is a definite winner. I know this because when I spoke to a high school class that had just read this novel, this is the line they gave me when I asked for “first good lines.” The story takes its readers on an intense adrenaline-driven ride from that point forward, as promised by... read more