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First Line Essentials

Updated: Jan 31



The first line in your novel is arguably the most important one in the entire book.


It's your reader's first impression of you and your masterpiece. So, make it a good one.


There are essential qualities to quality first lines.


First lines should:


Entice the reader.

Make them ask questions.

Establish the tone.

Show your style.

Set the scene.


All too often, people start like they are writing literary fiction. And that’s great, if they are, but most aren’t writing literary fiction.


You want to achieve most, if not all, of the ‘shoulds’ above, and that probably means many rewrites of this one sentence, but it’s such an important sentence.


First, let’s look at a few examples and see how they include the essentials. Then we will cover how not to start a novel, which is just as crucial.


Ex. 1.


Two days before his death, Jacob was floating dead-man style in the Potomac.


  • Scene/setting: The Potomac River, two days before Jacob’s death

  • Enticement: Obscure information of before his death

  • Character: Jacob

  • Style: simplistic

  • Tone: factual, possibly a hint of humor

  • Questions: Why was he floating dead-man style? Was he seeing how long he could hold his breath, trying out what it would feel like, or did someone fail to kill him?


Ex. 2.


It wasn’t like I was trying to hide the bruises; I really liked wearing long-sleeved shirts and jeans in the summer.


  • Scene/setting: Character is wearing a long sleeve shirt and jeans, and it’s summer

  • Enticement: the bruises

  • Character: I

  • Style: simplistic words, but longer sentences

  • Tone: light on a dark topic

  • Questions: How did the character get the bruises? Is the reason they like being fully covered in summer because of some experience from a long time ago? Is the character being honest or are they lying?


Ex. 3.


Antabella chose to vault left when she should have chosen right, and the laser beam from the security android sheared off her outermost distal phalange to the second metatarsal.


  • Setting: somewhere a security bot would need to be

  • Enticement: she just got her little toe cut off

  • Character: Antabella

  • Style: Long words and sentences

  • Tone: a bit judgmental

  • Questions: Is Antabella breaking into or out of somewhere? Why is a security bot necessary? Did she steal something or attempting to? How will she get out of this situation?


Ex. 4.


I’m not greeted by debris caused by exploding shells or villagers’ screeches when I forsake the safety of the bunker tonight, but motionless silence, and that terrifies me.


  • Setting: bunker in a warlike zone

  • Enticement: bombs, screaming, and silence

  • Character: I

  • Style: descriptive, verging on poetic

  • Tone: dark

  • Questions: What went on before that the character is used to explosions and screaming? How long has it been going on? What is going on now that is causing the silence?


We've seen what a first line can achieve, now let's see some overused and less successful ways to begin a story.


Ways not to start a novel:


  1. Dreams

  2. Waking up

  3. Backstory

  4. Swear words


Dreams


Ex.


Trees turned from brown to blue to red with every one of Kayson’s hard footfalls, and a crimson branch smacked him in the mouth as he sprinted through the morphing forest and woke him up.


Granted, we learn Kayson is the main character, and it’s exciting that he’s running in a strange forest, but what this line doesn’t do is anchor the reader in the character’s reality? It sets up a false promise.


Even if Kayson’s dream lasts for a couple of paragraphs or even a chapter, the promise to the reader is that what is described is real, which isn’t true.


Dreams can be revealing of a person’s inner turmoil, but the reader may be confused rather than entertained.


Waking up


Ex.


Mira awoke to the sun peeking through her curtains and making her eyelids red on the inside.


Nothing is exciting about waking up. There is nothing to entice the reader to read more or make them ask questions.


Lots of backstory


Ex.


There used to be fifty trees lining the property; that was until the drought of 1972, when farmers lost their crops, and streams, and even rivers, dried up, leaving the inhabitants and the surrounding tri-state area without drinking water, and when the waterwheels attached to every mill in the valley stopped turning, and the fish lined the banks of lakes for the water level dropped in them by at least five feet.


There’s great imagery here, but who is the main character? Why did the narrator move from one property to the tri-state area? What is happening now? How long will it be before I get to understand what’s going on?


Swear words


Ex.


Jamie was an @ss, always sticking his nose into other people’s business, giving his opinion when it wasn’t asked for, and quick with a snide remark.


Sure, swear words can set the tone of a novel, but the reader may think they are only there for shock value, and they could turn readers off. Those readers may not be your target audience, but the more people you hook, the more people will finish your novel!


I hope you enjoyed this post on first lines in fiction.


Need help with your first line or where to begin your story? Contact me. We will brainstorm.


Looking for some more writing or editing advice? Sign up for my newsletter.


Happy Writing and Revising!


Kristin Noland - Speculative and Crime Fiction Editor


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