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5 master ingredients to a great first line for your novel
Why should you start your novel with a great first line? First, because your novel will lie under a pile of manuscripts on an agent’s desk. When it reaches the top, it needs to grip that agent straightaway.
If it succeeds in hooking an agent and getting published, it will be camouflaged between rows of bright-spined books on a bookshop shelf. An intrigued reader may open it, but their attention is constantly called elsewhere. You don’t want your ideal reader to miss your novel. What should you do?
Hook from the very first line.
But let’s start with an alternative perspective on first lines. Then, we’ll have a look at more practical tips and master ingredients to use.
Another perspective on first lines
Here’s why not to follow the “Hook!” advice.
It’s dangerous. The flip side is that you might overdo it. You might fall in love with the caricature of a hook. By centring too much on the hooking power of the first line, you’ll lose the true meaning of it, which is: your first line is your promise.
Brandon Sanderson tells the story of a creative writing student who was writing a novel about racism in the Seventies. After a workshop about first lines where he’d been taught about the “Hook!” advice, this student read aloud:
“Sex, sex, sex, sex.” Silence. Readers hooked. “Now I’ve got your attention, I can start telling you about racism in the Seventies…” This student had hooked readers who weren’t interested in his story. Readers who would have loved his book, weren’t hooked.
So don’t focus on the hook, focus on the promise.
Imagine your novel is a house, and your first scene the entrance hall, and your title your entrance door. Your first line is the noise coming from inside.
Your reader leans towards the door, and you want them to hear a promise of what they’ll find inside. Do you want them to hear a hearty nose-blowing? Or a child screaming for help? A ship’s lonely foghorn, a kiss, or the racket of steaming engines? Think of the first line in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” Isn’t that a clear promise that nothing in the book will be normal?
A great first line contains the possibility of the whole story and its world.
Now let’s have a look at more practical tips.
5 master ingredients for a great first line
Here are 5 ingredients you can use to create a great first line:
1) The atmosphere. This ingredient will set your tone and allow a smooth introduction to your world. Look at Margaret George’s The Memoirs of Cleopatra: “Warmth. Wind. Dancing blue waters, and the sound of waves.” All the reader’s senses are awoken. Wake your reader up to your world. Here is a very different atmosphere, with William Gibson’s Neuromancer: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Create the mood for your readers.
2) The jarring. This ingredient will make your reader raise an eyebrow and look for an explanation. A sentence with two contradictory halves might do the job: the first half creates an expectation, the second half breaks it. Like, “The day of her funeral was the funniest day of his life.” (The possibilities are endless, just make a list of contradictions as a fun exercise!). Jarring isn’t necessarily contradictory. Jarring is also intriguing: George Orwell gives us this great first line with 1984: “It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Huh, striking thirteen?
3) The missing-one. This ingredient will create a feeling of incompleteness. Who can close a book down with a feeling of incompleteness? No one. That’s why so many novels start with a single parent, an empty bed, a missed date. Even The Hunger Games: “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.” And Suzanne Collins could have started her novel with so many other themes.
4) The stirring-up. Any sentence describing a motion. A motion has a cause, and it will have consequences. This is already a story.
5) The dialogue. Just like the stirring-up, a dialogue has a cause, and it will have consequences. Look at Hilary Mantel’s first line in Wolf Hall: “So now get up.” An order. A ratio of power. Humiliation and ambition. And if you read Wolf Hall, you’ll see this order is the protagonist’s deepest agenda.
Choose your Point Of View. This is crucial. Look at how films introduce you to their fictive worlds. Readers find it difficult to be transported into the head of the protagonist straight away. Look at how, in films, the first image may be of the sea, then of a boat, then of a cabin, then of James Bond.
Write your novel first. Have your story under total control. Only then, will you be able to find the first line that could encapsulate your story. You’ve already written your first line? So be ready to reassess it completely.
Visit your bookshop or library and systematically check the first lines of all the books you come across, preferably in your genre. Make a note of them in your notebook. Then fill it up with your own ones. Lots of them. Make it a state of mind. You’ll get there.