This week, Steve and I look at the importance of first lines in fiction. The information is largely taken and adapted from my book, Firsts in Fiction: First Lines. You can get a copy of the book here. We’d love for you to listen to the audio below, or you can download the .mp3 here. If you haven’t already subscribed, make sure you do, and tell your friends!
The first line of your novel is especially important for a few reasons. Firstly, you want to make sure you impress an editor. To maximize your chances of publication, you want to immediately let your critical readers know you’re in control. Editors are impatient, and often look for reasons to decline novels and stories. They only have so much space, so many pages, in their journal or magazine, or so many contracts they can offer if they’re a publishing house. All this adds up to one thing: why should they take your book?
A strong first line announces your authority as an author. It asserts your ability, and assures weary-eyed editors that their time will be well spent. Rather than looking for a reason to reject your story or novel, they’ll look for reasons to accept it. They may not be aware of their shift in attitude, but a strong first line increases your chances of success (especially for getting out of the “slush pile”) exponentially.
Readers are often as picky as editors. They want prose with teeth. They want to know they’re in the hands of a master, and they’re not willing to wait for more than a few pages as they’re browsing through Barnes and Noble to find out if they like you or not. Readers browsing bookstores have attention spans like teenagers cruising the mall looking for dates. Sure, they’ll look your book up and down, but if they don’t like what they see right away, they’ll never sit down to coffee with it.
There are several strategies to doing this (establishing character, conflict, voice, setting, dialog and action, saying something unexpected, or the oh-so-popular “sampler platter,”) which I cover in great detail in my book, so I won’t belabor the point here. Instead, we’ll look at potential traps that authors often fall into.
Perhaps the most common mistake that writers make is giving readers too little information. They’ll begin with a line of dialog, but not tell readers who is speaking, or where they’re speaking, or when they’re speaking, etc. The reader is left imageless. We have nothing to which we can relate the line. The first line can help set the stage, so when the dialog comes, we have some context, and image, perhaps, that allows us to conceptualize the line in a way we couldn’t before. Instead, give us a bit of setting; we don’t need much. Just a mention of setting, or a name or voice to go with the words maybe.
As with the rest of your novel, the first line should be free from cliches. Never begin with “It was a dark and stormy night,” because it’s been done to death. You may still open with a storm if you wish, but not that particular storm. Instead, make the storm (or whatever you choose to open with) unique. Your description will add a unique quality to the work; it will establish your voice and announce your authorial authority.
Another mistake writers often make is the lack of action. Put things in motion. We don’t like watching people think. Or sit. Something should be moving, even if it’s only a dragonfly buzzing over a lake. At some point, we need to see something move. Maybe it’s your character’s chest rising with a sharp intake of breath, or collapsing with a loud sigh. The importance of motion and movement can’t be understated.
The best first lines make a promise to the reader. They often introduce mysteries that will be later explained. When you make a promise, and then keep it somewhere in the first few pages, your readers will trust you, and they’ll read to the end of your book because they want to see you fulfill all the promises you’ve made in the book. Establishing this early on is always a good thing, but I wouldn’t call it a “rule.”
You don’t have to do ALL of these things in your first line, but you should do SOME of them. However, some writers like to try them all out. I call this the Sampler Platter approach. It can work, and be very effective, but if it’s not well executed, all you’re left with is a very long, very boring line. It’s better to do one thing well than many things poorly.
Remember, your first line won’t be the first one you write. True, you have to write A first line to begin your story or novel, but seldom will it stay the same. Sometimes, you find the best first lines buried pages deep into your opening chapter. It may even be in chapter two or three. Most writers, myself included, revise the first line after they’ve completed their story or novel to ensure that it’s an accurate representation of the voice and prose to come. Try crafting several opening lines to see which one works best. And, if you’re interested in how to write the best first lines, be sure to buy my book. 🙂