The title of this sounds pretty lofty, doesn’t it? For those of you who don’t have a finished manuscript, though, this might not be so useful. Write your novel, edit it, then see if you can cut the first chapter. Don’t count the writing as a waste, YOU needed to know what was going on so you could write the rest of the book. Then, it’s time to tweak that 1st line.
The first line of a novel has a lot of work to do.
At Balticon51, I attended one workshop on opening sentences with Steve Lubs and another on opening pages with Meg Eden. This is a lot of what they said, combined with knowledge from other places. (I tried not to copy their hand-outs directly.)
1. It Must Make You Want To Read The 2nd Line
First off and primary above all other jobs, the first line has to make us want to know more. It should lead us directly into the second line, and the next paragraph, and each line needs to pull us forward, further into the book.
2. It Must Establish The Tone of The Novel
The first line needs to give us a feel for the rhythm, the tone of the book. It needs to give us a feel for the main character’s voice and the world in which they live.
3. It Must (at least) Hint At A Problem
Novels have to have a plot, a problem to solve.
The problem can be internal–coming to terms with themselves or grief or a midlife crisis–or it can be external–a prince needs rescuing–but a story can’t exist without a problem.
You don’t HAVE to start ‘in medias res’, with someone shooting at our, so far, unknown protagonist. But, you need to hint at the issues to come.
So how do you make one little sentence do that?
Let’s take a look at famous first lines and see how many of those things they manage to do. And see if we can figure out how they did it.
1. Say something unexpected.
“I’m pretty much fucked.” — The Martian by Andy Weir
- No feel for setting, yet.
- The short simple sentence gives us a feel for the voice of the narration–we’re not going to have a lot of flowery prose with this one. We know the story’s told (at least partially) in first person and they’re not afraid to curse.
- We know there’s a major problem affecting primarily the main character. They don’t talk of “we” or “he”, they talk about themselves.
- Why is the narrator fucked? I’ll have to read the next line to find out more.
“The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.” — Blood Rites by Jim Butcher
- We’re in a burning building, or right outside one. That gives us partial setting.
- The 1st person voice is clear, has personality, and is ready to make excuses.
- The building being on fire and people thinking it might be the protagonists fault all sound like pretty big problems.
- Why is the building on fire and why might the narrator be blamed? I’ll have to read the next line to find out more!
“Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians.” — Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
- The setting is York, and the tone indicates the 1800s.
- The 3rd person narration gives a clear tone and rhythm. The unexpected is “magicians”. That tells us we’re dealing with a fantasy, most likely a historical fantasy, but possibly an alternate history fantasy.
- We don’t know what the problem is, yet. But we’re pretty sure it has something to do with magicians.
- How did the magicians fit in this world? Are they known or secret? I’ll have to read more to find out.
2. Describe the setting
Yes, it’s cliche, but if you have enough voice, you can pull it off. You have to make it unique though. Don’t just give us the adventures at a bar, tell us what’s DIFFERENT about this bar.
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfathomable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” — The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams
- The setting is clear. We’re on Earth, about our current technological levels, give or take a few decades.
- The narrator is dryly-witty, using tons of adjectives, and a tone of superiority. This gives us a good preview into the narrative style of the rest of the novel.
- The problem isn’t quite mentioned… yet. But it’s slightly hinted at.
- Who is charting the Galaxy, because it’s clearly not people from Earth? What are the other types of creatures, if they don’t descend from apes. And how are we going to show them that Earth is NOT insignificant? I’ll have to read the next line to find out more.
3. Introduce yourself or the situation
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
- No real setting, but the words suggest this story is about a family–not a journey, not a coming of age story
- The narrator begins by pontificating. The sentence is long and conjoined by a semi-colon. This sets a narrative rhythm. We don’t know if this is 1st person or 3rd, yet.
- The problem is introduced. There are going to be issues within the main character(s) families.
- How is the family the narrator is going to tell us about unhappy? I’ll have to read the next line to find out more.
“Call me Ishmael.” Moby Dick by Herman Melville
- No setting, but the name hints at a culture or religion (it’s biblical in origin).
- The narrator has a clear voice. (He immediately gets very adjective heavy and confession-ally long sentences.
- No problem, yet.
- Is his name really Ishmael, or is there a reason he’s called that? I have to read more to find out.
- Honestly? This 1st line works better because of the way it contrasts with the next paragraph. The 1st line doesn’t have to hold up the entire novel, but the first page needs to start out the way you intend to finish.
“Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes.” — The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
- We’ve got a feel for setting. With horses and swords, we’re likely in a fantasy or historical novel.
- Taran is our narrator – in 3rd person, with a feel of a student-age and a hint of dry-humor.
- We already know that the call of the sword is likely not something that’s going to go away and Coll doesn’t approve. That’s some conflict right there.
- Is Taran any good at making horseshoes? Who charged Coll with Taran’s education? His family? To find out, I’ll have to read more.
As you see, even the greats don’t always cover all the things above when they write there first lines, but they do their best to do at least 2 out of the 3.
Some people prefer the slow build, which is a legitimate tone choice, but you still need to at least hint at the problem by the end of the first page–even if the reader couldn’t possibly know that’s where the issue is.
Do you have any favorites I missed?
Do you have a first line that you don’t think is doing the heavy lifting? Post it up and we’ll see if I or my (carefully cultivated) commenters can help!