First Things First

A reminder: This post courtesy of Julie Jarnagin’s 101 Blog Post Ideas for Writers.

71. Writing a great first line

First impressions are an important thing. Though not necessarily the final say on how a person will come to perceive you, the first impression can decide whether or not someone even gives you a second chance to impress them. You’re not likely, for example, to have a second date with a guy who shows up to the first an hour late and covered in mud. Even if there’s a good story behind it (and there better be), chances are your impression of him will have been ruined, and that makes it a hundred times harder for him to prove himself to you.

The first line of a novel is the same way. The wrong line can immediately make the reader think, “You know what? Never mind,” and toss the book back on the shelf. The right line can hook a reader, give them a good first impression, and make them want to keep reading.

Just exactly how to accomplish this is something that has been spoken and written about at length, and while there are some common grounds, there’s a lot of disagreement as well. For instance, some people steadfastly insist that your first line should never be dialogue, but plenty of wonderful authors have used dialogue for that first sentence and it worked out beautifully. Other people have said that the first line shouldn’t be too action-oriented (“The car exploded!”) because it’s cliche and puts too much pressure on the remainder of the scene to be exciting. Again, many successful authors have ignored this concept, used action-sentences as their firsts, and did a great job at it.

A theory I have heard a few times, which I happen to agree with, is that your first line should simply be the beginning of the story. It sounds obvious, but think about it this way: instead of obsessing over writing the perfect first sentence, just start the story. The theory is that the best first line is whatever line starts telling your story. If that’s a piece of dialogue, an action moment, a piece of inner dialogue, a straight-up fact, or any other piece of information, that’s fine as long as it begins the telling of your story. This idea can be, has been, and will be contested, of course, by the kinds of people who think that there’s only one right way to write a novel, but anyone who believes that there’s only one right way to do something deserves to be ignored anyway. So just tell your story. The right line will pop up, I promise.

2 thoughts on “First Things First

  1. I think just telling the story is a great way to go. I find lines that are clever and hook-ish really draw me out and make me roll my eyes. Just tell me a story, and bring me in.

    • Agreed! Some of the best novels I’ve read have an opening sentence that just jumps right into the story. You don’t tend to RECALL that first line later, but that’s almost a good thing because you know it did it’s job and just pulled you into the story!

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