Thursday, March 29, 2012

Writing that First Line

Jody's great first line! ;-)
I adore first lines.

Or rather obsessed would probably be a wiser descriptor. There is something about a first line that completely intrigues me, something about it that pulls me in with either incredible dexterity or pushes me away with a grunt of dismissal.

A good first line means everything to a writer. It makes the critique partner beg for more. The contest judge sit up straighter (without the aide of coffee). The agent raise a brow. The editor keep reading another line. And ultimately the reader who picks up your book from store shelves, licks dry lips and walks without hesitation to the counter and plunks down $14.99.

Of course, much has to follow up a good first line to make the novel a true winner from cover to cover. And many authors obsess about that first line and don't put the same amount of time into the rest of the manuscript. But that still doesn't negate how important a good first line is.

And since I have such an obsession about first lines, I thought there would be nothing better than to take some of my favorite books down from the shelf and dissect what makes each first line work so well.

Shall we begin?

Line: Larson Jennings had lived this moment a thousand times over, and it still sent a chill through him. Rekindled by Tamera Alexander (2006)

Dissection: Rekindled is a historical novel, so there is more leeway in how fast this first line can take off. But word choice is everything with a historical novel. Words that jumped out at me? Thousand, chill and cadence. The rhythm of this sentence makes you want to find out why it sends a chill down his spine.

Line: They say everybody has a guardian angel watching out for them, but I'd never needed one half as badly as I did after Frank Wyatt died. Hidden Places by Lynn Austin (2001)

Dissection: This prompts the WHY question from the reader. Who is Frank Wyatt and why does this unmet "I" person need a guardian angel? The WHY factor is just as important to readers as it is writers. Every good first line should have leave the reader asking WHY?

Line: Fire captain, Scott McKenna bolted through the doors of Pacific Mercy ER, his boots thudding and heart pounding as the unconscious child began to stiffen and jerk in his arms. Disaster Status by Candace Calvert (2010)

Dissection: Action. This first line is roaring with action. We already have an indication from the cover and back cover copy that this book will be no slow romance, but the first line promises so much more of what your going to find within those pages. Plus the author did elicit the emotion factor by adding a child. Hurting children is one of the things that makes a reader sit up quicker than just about anything else.

Line: Tonight is the night. She could feel it. Adelaide Proctor stared at the man across from her, so many flutters dancing in her stomach she couldn't possibly eat a bite of the apple pie he'd just ordered for her.  Head in the Clouds by Karen Witemeyer (2010)

Dissection: Again the WHY question, but also an unspoken glimpse into the heart and longing of this character. Obviously she is waiting for her date to ask her to marry him. Or at least she wants him too. But from the tone of the sentence we can tell she isn't going to get what she wants. And that makes us hurt for her already and we don't even know her.

Line: The red light on Kate Lawrence's cell phone blinked a staccato warning. The Convenient Groom by Denise Hunter (2008)

Dissection: Word choice is everything for this opening line. Red (warning) blinked (anxious) staccato (harsh, to the point) warning (nothing good can come of this)

Another great line from Julie Lessman! ;-)
Line: If running late showed a streak of rebellion, Miranda Hanford was already in trouble. When Sparrows Fall by Meg Moseley (2011)

Dissection: This also gives a great glimpse into the character of this story. A name is awesome, gives us someone instantly to identify with, though not always necessary. But it shows that Miranda does not disobey the rules. And if the author does her job well (which she did) it foreshadows that Miranda, won't be obeying the rules later and it won't be a simple, running late.

Line: Sisters are overrated, she decided. Not all of them, of course, only the beautiful ones who never let you forget it. A Passion Most Pure by Julie Lessman (2008)

Dissection: Wowsers. Tension right off the bat! Family dynamics, story motivation and foreshadowing all wrapped up into one line.

Line: When Suzanne hugged the oversized scrapbook to her chest, a whirlwind of memories flittered by like leaves kicked up in an autumn breeze. A Sweethaven Summer by Courtney Walsh (2012)

Dissection: Hints at what this story is about. Memories. Some lost, brittle, dry, needing to be revived and shared. But many are destined to blow away and never be returned to the owner. It's an excellent metaphor to what is coming. Readers won't often get it right away, they don't need to. You just need to write a great line and back it up with a great story otherwise it all falls apart.

Line: If Uncle Lazarro hadn't left the mob, I probably wouldn't have a story to tell. Fools Rush In by Janice Thompson (2009)

Dissection: Good ole fashioned humor. I read this first line to my uber-picky of a reader father...we read all three books in the series in a matter of a few weeks. The power of a great first line. ;-)

Line: Nothing deepens a stream like a good rain...or makes it harder to cross. Crossing Oceans by Gina Holmes (2010)

Dissection: These are my favorite kind lines because it's my favorite kind of fiction--the kind I write. I love a first line that makes you stop. Think. Digest. And read on. It's all about word choice, cadence and genre.

Line: If forced to endure Roger Gordon for five more minutes, Marguerite Westing would die. Dead. Gone. Buried. Six feet under Greenlawn Cemetery. Making Waves by Lorna Seilstad (2010)

Dissection: This one also has great humor, but also shows who this character is. She's a bit dramatic, and not prone to like the person she is with and most likely it's someone she is being asked to court/date etc. But boy she really doesn't like him and we want to know why. Plus I don't know you, but I'm instantly endeared to this character. Punctuation makes a big difference here as well. One word sentences are sharp, to the point and show characterization here extremely well. Warning: don't overdo it. They should be used sparingly and only in the most appropriate of circumstances. Like this one.

Line: "I would rather boil in oil than marry Noah Brenin." Marianne tossed the silver brooch onto her vanity. Surrender the Heart by MaryLu Tyndall (2010)

Dissection: Dialogue. Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue is a GREAT place to start a novel. How often do you open a book, see a block of writing and put it back on the shelf without reading a word? I do a lot. Less than I used to, but I still do. Dialogue instantly gives white space and it's a fast easy read. Make it GREAT dialogue and you've probably scored a sale.

Katie's amazing debut novel!
Line: The summer I turned twelve, I tried to kill myself. At least that's what the lifeguard told the paramedics and the paramedics told the doctors and the doctors told my mother. Wildflowers from Winter by Katie Ganshert (May 2012)

Dissection: I think this line might be my favorite of this post and one I just read a few days ago. It's an excellent glimpse into the heroine of this book. Some might find it too dark, but keep reading and I really fell in love with how this character saw life. It's unique, but not depressing. Use your first line as an invitation to know your character. To become their best friend.

Discussion: What makes a good first line for you? Remember, it needs the why factor, cadence, a character glimpse, stay true to the genre and move the reader.

Seems like a very tall order, but just a few words can do so very much and set the tone for the entire novel. So write it right! It makes a huge difference pages and pages forward.

Share your WIP's first lines or the first line of your favorite novel!


Casey Herringshaw is a homeschool graduate and has been writing since high school. She lives in rural Eastern Oregon in a town more densely populated with cows than people.


Andrea Mack said...

These examples really show how the first line sets the tone of the novel. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Ooh, I loved this, Casey! Loved, loved, loved it. It was fun recognizing some of my favorite first lines and books in your list.

I think Susan May Warren has an incredible knack for first lines. I loved her first line in Heiress: "With the wrong smile, her sister could destroy Jinx's world."

First line of my just-finally-finished second book: "On any other day of the year, she could almost forgive herself for the lie."

Anonymous said...

Casey, so fun. I'm reading Fools Rush In right now on my Kindle. Wasn't sure how I'd like it in the beginning, but now all I want to do is finish it. :)

I'm learning from Susan May Warren the beauty of contrast in a first line. I couldn't decide which line of hers I like best, so I'm sharing two. :)

From My Foolish Heart: "For two hourse a night, Monday through Saturday, Isadora Presley became the girl she'd lost."

And from The Shadow of Your Smile: "Noelle longed for the redemption that came with a fresh snow."

Appreciate your tips and things to consider when writing first lines, Casey. Thanks for sharing such great examples.

MELISSA--LOVE the line you shared from your book!

Beth K. Vogt said...

Loved this post and the glimpse at all the first lines. I just finished reading Rachel Hauck's The Wedding Dress: It was the breeze, a change in the texture of the unseen that made her look up and walk around a stand of shading beech trees.
I love the rhythm of that first sentence -- the bit of music in it & how it hints at something happening ... changing.

Casey said...

ANDREA, you have it! Absolutely correct. :)

MELISSA, and there are sooo many great lines to choose from and learn. I literally will just open a book for that first line to see how it hits me.

I LOVE your first line. Great capture, I love those kind of character introspection lines.

Casey said...

JEANNE, isn't Fools Rush In a great novel? My whole family loved that series, one of my favorite contempories. SMW does a great job of crafting her first lines and that one from My Foolish Heart is a fantastic one. Instantly shows conflict, character depth and what she wants. So much said in so few!

BETH, I'm reading The Wedding Dress too right now, a wonderful start to the book. Very true deduction on her first line. I'm excited to finally read yours in print. ;))

Lindsay Harrel said...

Love, love, love these!!

I would share my first line, but I entered it into the Frasier and Genesis, and I think a few judges might be reading this post. Wouldn't want to disqualify myself! :P

Jill said...

Great post, Casey! I will definitely print this for my writing notebook. Thanks!

Joanne Sher said...

TOTALLY fun post! Some great first lines!

And the first line in MY WIP?

"Thirteen years old. An adult in Hebrew society – had she been a boy, anyway."

May need to fiddle with it. The paragraph after I LOVE.

Heather Marsten said...

Great post. I've been studying openings and you gave some good examples. I would definitely keep reading your story based on the first lines. Here's the first few lines of my WIP - memoir - "Tell Me What He Did." It's a memoir of healing from abuse and it was suggested that I not start with an abuse scene - so I started with a boys' game - figuring most of my life is subject to boys' games - at least until I heal :)

“Run!” I yell to Pam. “They’re right behind you.”

She dodges the boys, races past Mommy’s vegetable garden, and heads toward the maple tree in her backyard. If she touches the trunk, we win, and the boys will finally have to keep their promise to play house with us.

Heather Marsten said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Katie Dunn said...

First lines are crucial! Thanks so much for sharing this post! There are more than a few books I'm going to pick up just from the first lines you've shared on here=)
And speaking of first lines, here's mine:

I came home from the hospital on the anniversary of my sister’s death.

Casey said...

LINDSAY,then hopefully you'll be able to share with us eventually. ;) Isn't it fun to craft that first line? I love it! It can become obsessive though. ;)

JILL, I'm glad it was helpful to you! It was a fun one to write.

Casey said...

JOANNE, maybe a tiny bit, I stumble a little bit on the cadence, but it is *so* close. A great attention grabber!

HEATHER, that is a great first line. I don't read memoirs, but it seems like one to fit the kind of book you're writing. It incorporates story elements and encourages the reader to get caught up in the moment. Nice!

Casey said...

KATHLEEN, these are just a few of my favorite books. All of which got 4 or 5 stars from this year. The story that follows is in perfect harmony with that first line.

And GREAT first line. Oh. My. Goodness. I want to know more. Right now. Great, GREAT work!!

Julie Lessman said...


First lines have to one of my FAVORITE things in a book, seriously!! And thank you SO much for including my first line from APMP in this great grouping of first lines!!!

One of my faves is from Mary Connealy's Calico Canyon:
The five horsemen of the Apocalypse rode in. Late as usual.

Of course, I have tons more included in a Seeker blog I had more fun writing than just about any other. It was called "The Perfect Pick-Up Line ... Or How to Hook a Reader!! There are SO many famous first lines in there and some of my faves in the Christian market as well, along with tips on what makes a good first line. Here's the link if anybody wants to take a look: The Perfect Pick-Up Line

But, seriously, SUCH a fun subject!!


Jackie Layton said...

Loved this post! I'm struggling with my first line right now. I've rewritten it so often, I'm almost sick of it.
I needed this post.

Martina Boone said...

Lovely post. My favorite line was: Nothing deepens a stream like a good rain...or makes it harder to cross.

I love lines that prove to be symbolic or theme related, and I suspect that this one is. Will now have to go read the book :D

Thanks for all these lovely openings!

Have a great week.