Stephen King reflected on the magnitude of a novel’s first line. “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story,” he said. “It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”
Preach it, Steve.
I’m not saying a killer first line will get you an agent, get your book sold, or make it a NYT bestseller. But it sure won’t hurt your chances, and I’d make a case that a book that achieves all the above, more often than not, has a great first line.
Why is that? A first line is a promise to the reader, telling them what kind of book this is. What your voice is. Maybe who the main character is. A good first line will pull a reader into a story.
But how do you do that? Here are some suggestions:
Irony – A contradiction or opposite of some kind, something unexpected.
You just know from those 23 words, how Jane really feels about this ‘universal truth’. And you could guess how she’ll handle it in the book, right? Jane has just shown you her voice – snark, Victorian style. BTW, many will argue to the death that this was the best first line ever written. Let’s not go there – we’ve a lot more to do.
Catalyst – The catalyst is what sets your story in motion. A knock at the door, a phone call, please, just don’t start with a dream!
Comparison – A simile or metaphor.
“Unlike the typical bluesy earthy folksy denim-overalls noble-in-the-face-of-cracker-racism aw shucks Pulitzer-Prize-winning protagonist mojo magic black man, I am not the seventh son of the seventh son of the seventh son.” Paul Beatty, The White Boy Shuffle
“Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.” Roxane Gay, An Untamed State
“He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.” Virginia Woolf, Orlando
Question – But be careful using this; it’s been used SO much that has to be fresh and intriguing. NO clichés!
Intriguing Character –
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
Intriguing Premise – The line itself may not mean much, but after reading it, you HAVE to read on!
“Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.”Dennis Lehane, Until Gwen
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Here’s mine, from The Sweet Spot:
The grief counselor told the group to be grateful for what they had left. After lots of considering, Charla Rae decided she was grateful for the bull semen.
I screwed up with that line. I wasn’t going for funny. I didn’t even know it was funny until, when I read it at a writer’s retreat, Tessa Dare snorted coffee through her nose and almost wet her pants. See, bull semen is a legitimate industry – just as racehorse semen is. And Charla Rae owns a ranch where they raise and train bucking bulls. The book is emotional, and deals with grief and forgiveness. So, in this case, the first line breaks its promise to readers (unless they know the bull industry). But you know what? When people meet me, they mention that line. They actually remember it. So I can live with that.
I’ve been thinking a lot about first lines, lately. I may not have the perfect first line when I start a book, but if I don’t, it niggles at the back of my mind until I come up with one – even if it’s after I’ve written half the book!
I knew I didn’t have the best first line for my current WIP – it’s a hard-hitting, right to die novel. Here was my first shot at it:
Funny, how knowing the exact time and place of my death makes me exquisitely aware of being alive.
It’s not bad; it raises a question in the reader’s mind. It’s in the voice of an upper-middle class scientist and professor, which the protagonist is.
But I knew it wasn’t a killer first line. Enter the brilliant Margie Lawson. On a Writer’s Cruise (yes, it was as amazing as that sounds, and they’re having another this year! You can check it out here), she worked with me on my first scene. Together, we came up with the first line:
Today, death rides a bicycle. My bicycle.
So, do you have a favorite first line for us? Either one of yours, or a memorable one from another author?
Many thanks to guest blogger Laura Drake. This article first appeared on Romance University’s website on January 15, 2016.
Motif is any recurring element that has symbolic significance in a story. Through its repetition, a motif can help produce other narrative (or literary) aspects such as theme.
Theme is what the author is trying to tell the reader. For example, the belief in the ultimate good in people, or that things are not always what they seem. This is often referred to as the “moral of the story.”
Symbolism is the use of symbols to signify ideas and qualities by giving them symbolic meanings that are different from their literal sense.
Thematic patterning means the insertion of a recurring motif in a narrative.
I’ve used all of them in my books: An ugly scar, to remind the readers of the protagonist’s guilt and shame (Nothing Sweeter). A cowgirl hat to signify the protagonist’s reluctance to change (Sweet on You). White roses, to remind a mother of her grief (The Sweet Spot). Even a motorcycle, to show a character’s running from her past (Her Road Home).
These are powerful and fun to use, because they’re shortcuts; you don’t have to keep reminding the reader with flashbacks and backstory – you can have them look at the symbol, and the reader gets it.
They’re everywhere in literature. The ring, in Tolkien’s series – it’s a symbol of power, good and evil, all rolled into one. The Silence of the Lambs had lambs, but shoes, too. Speaking of shoes, how about The Wizard of Oz? Hey, this could be a nerdy game for writers on a long road trip – say the book, and the others have to guess the motif!
But before I get carried away with that, hopefully the examples above convince you of the power of these devices.
You can even use more than one symbol or in your novel, to weave a strong theme through the story. It helps deepen the emotion and glue the reader to the page.
I did this with my first women’s fiction book (released on the 11th of this month!), Days Made of Glass, I used the symbolism of glass – these are two sisters, on their own at 17 and 13. They live on the edge of society, the edge of disaster – their lives are fragile. The protagonist is a rodeo bullfighter; her teacher tells her that she has to be faster, better than the men – they’re wood, she’s glass. Then there’s her mentally ill sister, who’s shatters glass, and tries to commit suicide by slitting her wrists with it.
The symbol I used was a small glass box, a cheap trinket with a yin yang symbol on the lid.
Yin yang represents forever, which is how the sisters think of their relationship. They’re very close. When Harlie, the eldest, has to leave her catatonic sister in a mental care facility to travel to Texas to train to be a bullfighter, she takes the glass box with her. When it’s broken, it’s the beginning of Harlie understanding that she can’t keep her sister safe – she can’t save her.
What do you think? Have you used symbols, motifs or themes in your writing? How?
What about my nerdy writer’s game? Do you have any books you can name with motifs?
Days Made of Glass – January 2016
Shared blood defines a family, but spilled blood can too.
Harlie Cooper raised her sister, Angel, even before their mother died. When their guardian is killed in a fire, rather than be separated by Social Services, they run. Life in off the grid in L.A. isn’t easy, but worse, there’s something wrong with Angel.
Harlie walks in to find their apartment scattered with shattered and glass and Angel, a bloody rag doll in a corner. The doctor orders institutionalization in a state facility. Harlie’s not leaving her sister in that human warehouse. But something better takes money. Lots of it.
When a rep from the Pro Bull Riding Circuit suggests she train as a bullfighter, rescuing downed cowboys from their rampaging charges, she can’t let the fact that she’d be the first woman to attempt this stop her. Angel is depending on her.
It’s not just the danger and taking on a man’s career that challenges Harlie. She must learn to trust—her partner and herself, and learn to let go of what’s not hers to save.
A story of family and friendship, trust and truth.
Bio: In 2014, Laura realized a lifelong dream of becoming a Texan and is currently working on her accent. She gave up the corporate CFO gig to write full time. She’s a wife, grandmother, and motorcycle chick in the remaining waking hours.