This is the first line to my book The Secret Deep. Forgive me for starting this post with my own writing, but it is relevant, I promise. I rewrote the entire opening of my debut hundreds of times, over the course of nearly five years. And it was worth it because I’m proud of this line.
Would you read on? I would, I think. And that’s everything.
I have a bit of a thing for first lines. It started when I was preparing to submit my book and I discovered how many submissions agents receive. Some receive thousands per week. I realized my writing would be judged by an agent within minutes. By the first page. The first line mattered.
Now I know that to be the case. I’m currently reading my submissions for the Write Mentor Summer programme. I have 83 and only a few days to read. You have to grab me with your writing quickly…because if you don’t, others will. I don’t expect a polished first line, it’s certainly not a game changer for submissions from authors who want to be mentored – but it does grab attention if there is one.
Five years ago, when I was trying ready my own first manuscript for submission I began to investigate my most beloved books and recent books I’d read in my genre. I found first lines of pure poetry. And in some of my favourite books they become more resonant once you’ve read to the end. I think you’re gathering I have a bit of a first line obsession. I even started a first line notebook. I wrote out 60 first lines from books in what I thought was a similar genre to mine.
So what makes a great first line? It’s subjective of course. But my favourites convey one element of the story to come, very strongly. Could be voice, setting, atmosphere, tension, character or a combination. The line could raise such a huge question you simply have to read on. I love it when one line can set the tone. I also really admire economy and visuals in writing.
So here a handful of my favourites and the reasons why I love them. Depending on the style of the book I am including more than one line.
Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White
The first line of the first book to make me cry. E.B. White is a master of economy and this sets the tension up perfectly. An axe is brutal. A girl and her mum setting the table is not. Divine juxtaposition. Read that whole first page and feel the goose bumps. This is a writer who knows that MG readers don’t need authors to hold back on the grit.
Torak woke with a jolt from a sleep he’d never meant to have.
Wolf Brother – Michelle Paver
It’s a line, it’s a paragraph, it’s simply a perfect way to set up a brutal heart wrenching adventure that developed into a series that took the whole world by storm. The short words, the music between ‘woke’ and ‘jolt’. Read it out loud and marvel at the cadence. I think Michelle Paver is a word musician. She is my favourite author.
We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
So many questions are raised here. Why? Why? Why? As stark as the book will become.
The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.
The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness
The voice grabs immediately, both distinctive and funny. And again that question raised. This person’s dog is talking and I need to know why!
The King stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored.
Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel
This is poetry to me. It’s the word unmoored that really gets me. I’d argue that how different people react to being unmoored is a major theme in this stunning book.
I’m reading fan-fiction in my pyjamas when I hear a nightmarish sound: the emergency alarm.
The Loneliest Girl in the Universe – Lauren James
I’ve cheated a bit on this one, as there is a prologue article before we are introduced to Romy. But as the first line in a character’s voice this is brilliant. We know specifics about this character, and there’s tension already. Nightmarish is the strong word in this sentence and the word for this whole book, and I love it.
I could go on. There are so many fantastic book openings out there.
I wrote some advice about first lines and openings in general. I actually can’t remember if I fully wrote or copied it from somewhere, but I think it’s mine! It’s impossible to follow it all of course. You can’t squeeze all of that into a line, but I still use it as I kind of checklist for my first chapter or scene, and probably always will.
Before you going running off to rewrite and tweak the first lines on your WIP – my last piece of advice. Don’t write you first line until you’ve written the last. Draft it – or even better, write a few alternatives and jot notes. But you probably wont know the best way to start your story, until you’ve seen it’s entirely. I like to realte my first line to my last. Call it an author quirk. But last lines are a whole other post!
Here’s mine – note the repetition, first meets last. I’m such a massive author geek and proud.
What are your favourite first lines, and why do you love them?
Lindsay was lucky enough to be raised in a house of stories, music, and love of the sea. She left part of her heart underwater after living and working in Thailand where she spent hundreds of blissful hours scuba diving. Forced now to surface for breath, she lives in sight of the chillier Sussex sea with her husband and two sons. When she is not writing, she can be found reading, swimming or practicing yoga. She has a degree in English Language and Literature, is fascinated by psychology and the natural world, and teaches Science. Lindsay hadn’t written creatively since childhood until the idea for her debut novel The Secret Deep splashed into her mind, and now she’s hooked.