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Overthinking the First Line – An Author’s Dilemma

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It is true an author needs to consider what will grab a reader in the first few pages, but what about the very first sentence? Do you stop reading if the first sentence isn’t interesting? Probably not, but if you’re a writer, you need to consider your prospective audience, especially if they’re twelve and younger.

Here are a few first lines to ponder:

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

After reading this line, what do you think the story will be about? Vampires? Zombies? Pirates? Or maybe it’s a tragic love story. Basically we have no idea unless we were coherent enough to look on the front cover and see this is the first line of A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle.

In 1962, when A Wrinkle in Time was published, first lines were probably not as important as they seem to be today, at least for those of us who are trying to get published. It would be rare indeed to see a book published today that starts with just a comment about the weather. But I have to admit this line sets the perfect scene for what happens next and has become a classic for children and adults.

“Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes.”

This line was published in 1964 in The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander. It gives us a more insightful view of the coming story. From this one sentence we know the basic information about the main character—he wants to be a hero, but has to do boring work instead. What middle school boy couldn’t relate to that?

“I was seven and living in Los Angeles when Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, and my first vivid memories are of how happy and excited everyone was.”

This line comes from Malie Maloy’s, The Apothecary, published in 2011. First, I want to say I loved this book. Any story with magical realism set in another decade is a hit with me. But I think this first line gives us an excellent example of the author’s dilemma.

In this sentence we get a hint of time and place, but not much else. The majority of the book is set when the main character is a teenager in England, so this first part of the book is pretty much backstory. It is needed backstory, but I would’ve liked an earlier hint that magic was going to come along to change things.

If you’re a writer you need to struggle with the question, “Where does my story begin?” And once you answer that question, ask one more, “What do I need to tell my readers at the beginning so they want to keep reading?”

Personally, I don’t think the first line is as important as those first few paragraphs. Give me an idea about the main character and setting, then I’ll happily journey with you into all the twists and turns and backstory you want to throw at me.

Happy writing!

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One Response to “Overthinking the First Line – An Author’s Dilemma”

  1. Rico Marbach says:

    nice article, keep the good work going

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