Does your first sentence grab a reader by the throat?
January 2, 2016
WHEN YOU PICK UP A BOOK for the first time, and the first line grabs you by the—er– throat, you know you’re in for a great ride. As a reader there’s nothing quite as exciting as a line that makes the hairs on your neck rise, or makes you laugh unexpectedly, or intrigues you so much you’re hooked.
So you can probably imagine the effort, stress, and headaches authors go through to create them. Getting the first line right is one of the most important factors in writing a story people genuinely can’t put down. How do we do it?
How to create a legendary first line
First lines are all about creating suspense. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a romance, a thriller, sci-fi, or a literary novel, the first line must grab a reader and force them to read on. It poses a question, presents an unresolved situation, or describes something either so beautiful or odious that we are captured.
It doesn’t always come at the start of the writing process. Sometimes I write my first line well after I’ve finished the book, because it’s not until then that I actually know what the book is about and how to hook readers in those crucial first milliseconds.
“Hook” is the operative word, btw. It could be a line of dialogue, a piece of narrative, or a character’s action. That doesn’t matter. What matters is the emotional impact. Reader should immediately get the tone of the book: whether it’s dark or funny, pensive or action-oriented, quiet or brazen. It should present an idea or opportunity or question that forces readers advance to the second line, the third, the fourth until they’re so into the story they can’t back out… and don’t want to.
Start in “Media Res”
I dive right in and start in the middle of things. Often it means forcing my readers catch up with what’s gone on before, or, (and this is harder) imagine what’s gone on before. Whether it’s real or imaginary, I try to write a sentence that makes it impossible to put the book down. The reader knows something’s going on but they’re not quite sure what. It creates an irresistible situation.
Bear in mind that the first line doesn’t need to be ponderous or weighty. There’s no need to sacrifice humor. A first line can be as witty, tongue-in-cheek, or provocative as one wants, as long as it has the power to drive a reader forward.
A few words about prologues
Some people love them, some hate them. But when should a writer use them?
A prologue can be very effective, especially when it describes an event in the past that will have a significant effect on the characters in the present. On the other hand, if your prologue is starting to look an awful lot like a backstory, delete it. If it’s morphed into something in between or you’re not really sure what function it’s meant to have, you can always change it by simply crossing out the word ‘prologue’ and make it Chapter One instead.
Some of My Favorite First Lines
Here are some first lines I think are pretty good.
“Some women give birth to murderers, some go to bed with them, and some marry them.” Before The Fact, by Francis Iles (the inspiration for Hitchcock’s Suspicion)
For a week, the feeling had been with him, and all week long young Paul LeBeau had been afraid.” Iron Lake, William Kent Krueger
“I was trapped in a house with a lawyer, a bare-breasted woman, and a dead man. The rattlesnake in the paper sack only complicated matters.” Fat Tuesday, by Earl Emerson
“My bodyguard was mowing the yard wearing her pink bikini when the man fell from the sky.” Dead Over Heels by Charlaine Harris
“The man with ten minutes to live was laughing.” The Fist of God by Frederick Forsyth
“The small boys came early to the hanging.” Pillars Of The Earth by Ken Follett
And my all time favorite:
“I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer’s headless body in the trunk, and all the time I’m thinking I should have put some plastic down.” Gun Monkeys by Victor Gischler.