In her book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole says,
What is a first line specific to your novel that can’t launch any other book? What questions or mysteries does your first line raise? None? Add some. There should be a spike of tension in every first line, something that makes the reader think, ‘Tell me more.’
First pages are really difficult in writing. You know what’s even harder? First lines.
Trust me, I should know. I’ve written twenty novels in ten years. And every first line is really, really difficult. Every first line fills me with anxiety.
I ask myself, is this the best place to start the story? Is this the way I want to draw my readers in?
Studying what other writers have opened their successful novels with is always a good place to start. Here’s a sample of famous first lines…
It was the day my grandmother exploded.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
They shoot the white girl first.
Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.
I’m pretty much fucked.
See how commanding these opening sentences are? How much they make you want to read on?
Yes, many readers will give you pages and even chapters before they decide to continue on, but others won’t, that’s the sad truth. There are readers out there who will read your first page, your first paragraph, your first sentence, and if there’s nothing about it that strikes them, they might put the book down and start searching for another.
This is why openings are so difficult. You can spend three years of your life revising your novel to perfection, but if that opening chapter, page, sentence, aren’t dynamite, all that work can be for nothing!
Mary Kole is right that the first line should offer the reader a spike in tension.
I agree with her that the line should be unique, it should tease a mystery perhaps, but it should absolutely offer a spike in tension.
Sure, you could probably cite for me a dozen examples of classic novels that open with a line where there’s no tension, but usually it’s a crisis in that opening sentence that makes me want to continue. If not a crisis, at least the promise of potential conflict to come.
Here’s my favorite first line of one of my recent novels…
My parents were dead on the living room floor, and my brother was screaming.
Now I’ve actually changed how this particular manuscript starts in later drafts, but boy, that first line always seemed like a winner to me, the way it sets up a major crisis for the lead character. Parents dead? Screaming brother? Who wouldn’t want to read on?
Here are a few other first lines from my more recent novels…
Micah was about to step inside the eye doctor’s office when he heard a strange voice echo through the air.
The nightmare was real.
Miranda was clearly looking for something, or someone.
The zombie shuffled up to the house, hungry for flesh and ready to kill.
There’s a tooth on my front porch.
Some of these first lines work better than others, and a couple of these right now are a work in progress. There are pros and cons to each of the sentences I believe.
There’s definitely a spike in tension in a few of them, but in looking at these opening sentences one after another, it’s clear that many of them are too vague to really grip the reader right off the bat.
In your own writing, you want to give the reader a first line that’s unique. Open your book with something we’ve all seen before, and you might lose your reader fast.
As long as you open with something different, something that promises a potential crisis or conflict, and teases tension to come? Then you’re well on your way.
First lines are important, but in the beginning of the process, don’t panic about your opening.
It’s essential that you write a killer first line, a killer first page… and it’s also essential that you remember to relax because you can come back to the opening later.
So many writers will just stare at that blank page and feel too scared to write anything down, worried that opening line might not be perfect.
Yes, day one of starting a new writing project is always difficult, and you do spend more time on that first page or two than you do on, say, page 157, but you need to remember that what’s most important is that you keep writing day after day and finish the project no matter what.
Even if your opening line stinks, you can change it later! You can revise it fifty times if you want. You can try different opening lines and pages and share them with writer friends and get their feedback. You can keep refining that opening until it’s as perfect as can be.
By the time you start showing your work to people who can make a difference in your writing career, you absolutely should have a killer first line. One that is clearly you and no one else. One that teases potential mystery, conflict, suspense, tension. One that makes the reader simply have to read sentence number two.
Never forget that a super compelling opening, and a killer first line, will work wonders in getting more people to read your work and increasing your chances for success in the future!