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Finding the First Line of Your Novel

Books_Olympus_ompc_79830_hI’m looking for the first line of my novel, the one I’m currently rewriting.  It’s funny, I have this unwarranted idea that the first line should spring, fully formed and perfect, into my mind and from there I will write the rest of the novel.

This is not what has happened with this current novel.  The current first line is kinda okay, and I actually like it, but all of my readers so far have told me that not only the first line but the first few paragraphs have to go.  

And I know they are right.  Sigh.

But I’m still superstitious about it. Because, here’s what happened with Emma Jean.  She started talking to me and the first line of the novel, Emma Jean Sullivan hated babies, sprang into my head and the novel went from there, much like I described.  It is a great first line, you have to agree. My writing group at the time loved it.  Until we got to the rewriting part and the doubts crept in.

“Maybe you’ll turn off agents with that line,” someone said.

“Or readers,” another chimed in.

And so I changed it.  I can’t even remember to what, but it was something lame and lacking in power. I submitted the rewrite to the group, and–you can see this coming, right?  They were all, “Why did you change the first line?  This one doesn’t work at all.”

And so the original, brilliant-if-I-do-say-so-myself line stood.  

I’m not an expert on first lines and I’ve not actually read much about what they should include, but here’s my idea: they need to draw the reader in.  I know, duh.  But what, exactly, will draw the reader in?

In my inexpert opinion, it is conflict.  If you have a weak, flabby first line try adding some tension or conflict to it and see what happens.   And now that I’m thinking about it, that’s one of the problems with the current first line of my novel–there’s no conflict in it.

On the other hand, I just found a site which lists the 100 best lines of novels, and guess what the first line is?  Call me Ishmael.  Not a lot of conflict in that, is there?  (Update: that site is dead, but here’s one that lists the 50 Best First Sentences in Fiction. It’s a little hard to read, but as far as I can tell Call me Ishmael is not anywhere on it.)  And by the way, here is my own favorite first line, which is really not the first line of the book, but of Codi’s viewpoint section, but anyway, I still love it: I am the sister who didn’t go to war.  Do you know what novel it is from? (I’ll tell you at the end of this post.)

One of my pet peeves is the opening a novel with dialogue.  I don’t mind it when others do it, but it never seems to work for me.  I know, weird.  But there it is and that’s not very helpful to you, is it?  So since this post is turning out to be exploratory in nature, in order to offer you some real assistance, I turned to the Google.  And found some good links!  Here you go:

7 Keys to Write the Perfect First Line of a Novel

7 Ways to Create a Killer Opening Line for Your Novel (This one is really helpful.)

Okay, and honestly, those are the only how-to examples I could come up with.  But I think they are good ones.  So now I’m going to slink away and ponder my own first line.  Oh, wait, I had one more suggestion about how to find your first line.  

Ask your subconscious to provide it for you.  

I do this when I’m full up and fed up with trying to figure it out myself.  It always works, it just sometimes (like now) takes awhile.  But I feel certain it will be here soon.

What do you think about first lines?  What’s your favorite?  And how have you found yours in the past?

*Animal Dreams, by Barbara Kingsolver, which also happens to be one of my fav novels of all time.  Along with Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner.

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