Tips & Tricks

How Important Are First Lines?

As writers, we hear frequently how “important” that first sentence is.

Examples of what are passed around as “first line musts”

  • Must be unique and memorable.
  • Must be vivid.
  • Must be truthful, funny, scary, etc any emotion.
  • Tells the reader the genre
  • Introduces all the main characters.
  • Make the reader care.

It’s the magical key that keeps a reader reading … I disagree to an extent with wherever that statement is going.

The first one I will bust is “telling the reader the genre.” The cover and the blurb did that. Think of all the famous first lines such as ‘Call me Ishmael.’ if you didn’t know that was from Moby Dick, how does that “set the genre?” Even knowing that is Moby Dick, how can you tell the genre from that line?

The first line isn’t a keystone moment as much as the first couple of pages. (A keystone moment is akin to a keystone species in biology. IE: a keystone species is an animal that if it was removed from a habitat, the habitat would change drastically. This can be the Kangaroo Rat, a rodent in Australia, to the American Alligator in the Everglades. For fiction, a keystone moment is the cover, the blurb, genre norms (not the same as pushing the genre but like trying to market a 1990s book as historical fiction), and quality product.

Every sentence in the story should propel the story forward and keep the reader engaged, but an okay first line will not make it or break it for a reader unless you do something so far outside of normal/typical that it draws attention to just being bad. It’s a reason why Amazon and other publishing companies allow 10% preview. The blurb and cover hooked a reader to look closer and the sneak peek should entice them into wanting more. It isn’t just because the first line was A-Mazing.

A good opening scene is a handshake between reader and writer showcasing the writing style and possible setting/characters, but it isn’t based solely on the first line.

When writing openings these are things you should avoid doing.

  • Overwriting/Info dumps: Writers can be long winded and think they should shove everything in the opening line/paragraph of a story.
  • Boring: Writers try to get readers to care for characters by showing a “normal” day.
  • Cliches: Some famous cliches to avoid are waking up, staring into a mirror to describe the character, or boarding something like a train, plain, bus and having all the time in the world to reflect—if you’re including transportation, start with them getting off unless you’re recreating the movie Speed.
  • Prologues: Prologues are useful for covering something that happens well before the start of the story or is important to said story, but can’t be pulled off by world building. Most writers treat it like an info dump, and that is why many readers skip it, publishers cut it, and it gets a bad rap as unnecessary.

There are two books I recommend on understanding how to make those openings work for you.

The first book is by K.M. Weiland called Structuring Your Novel. She says good hooks have five parts, and that it isn’t so much a memorable line as much as it is a sentence that keeps the reader reading. She uses a wide variety of film and books to demonstrate variances on hooks and their impact.

The second book I’ve read on understanding opening scenes is the book by James Scott Bell called Super Structure. Bell calls the opening scene “The Disturbance.” To make the book understandable, he uses a variety of examples from the classic Wizard of Oz to Hunger Games, and my favorite, Lethal Weapon.

When the disturbance is paired with a “care package,” you get an amazing opening scene that gives conflict, character building and world building without being an info dump.

They both break down the point of the scene and how to make that work for your advantage. I highly recommend both books.

Knowing that, these are some good points to consider when writing your opening scene:

  • You have an entire book to demonstrate normal, so give a scene that has conflict/action and engages the reader.
  • You have an entire book to describe your character, so hints and teases are great at the beginning.
  • You have an entire book to explain the why. Give the readers the bread crumbs to the witch’s cottage and let them realize they could have DYIed the cottage from the crumbs all along if they’d just realized xyz twist.

It’s that simple.

First impressions can be deceiving, so make sure your opening scene conveys emotion, gives a glimpse at the world—and not the normal run-of-the-meal kind of day, while not putting all the pressure on that first sentence.

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**If you enjoy writing to prompts, check out The First Line Literary Journal.

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