Novel Writing
Charlotte Rains Dixon  

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.

0 thoughts on “Finding the First Line of Your Novel

  1. J.D.

    First lines are important–everyone says so. I’ve read great ones and I’ve read some that were overdone. Here’s the opener from THE CLIENT: Mark was eleven and had been smoking off and on for two years, never trying to quit but being careful not to get hooked.
    I don’t like this line. I love the book. I love the opening chapter! First of all this sentence has no action. “Was” is certainly passive. Just looking at that opening sentence, I’d go thumbs down. Did I stop reading? No. And I am thankful I did not. I would have missed one of the great openings in modern fiction.

  2. Dyoung

    Unless I have a specific reason to get/read a book, (ie: when I’m browsing the bookstore shelves)…I always open to that first line. If I don’t like it, I’ll open to the last line (a sort of second chance) then I determine if ill bring it home.

    Just like first impressions. It’s important.

  3. Charlotte Dixon

    That’s so funny, because as I read that first line I thought how it didn’t draw me in at all. I don’t care about an 11-year-old kid when I know the book is about adults! And, as I recall, I did like that first chapter and it drew me right in. So go figure. 🙂

  4. Charlotte Dixon

    Yep, you just proved my point. Although its kinda crazy that you read the last line also. Spoilers! But it just goes to show you how quirky our book buying before can be.

  5. J.D.

    I didn’t comment but I love Emma Jean’s first line. It has just the right shock value, stirs the curiosity well enough. I don’t think anyone would read that and not go to the next sentence.

  6. Dyoung

    I’ve done that ever since I can remember. There are times too, about mid-way through a book, I will read the last few pages even. My husband used to get so upset with me. He isn’t a reader so I told him to mind his own business 😉 (all in good fun) I recently read another author blog that finally, after all her years of also committing the ‘crime’ admitted to her reading ahead. She had SO many responses of her readers that also do this. I didn’t feel so badly. And it’s probably why I can openly admit it here without feeling too horrific of a person!

  7. Charlotte Dixon

    Okay, I will admit I sometimes leaf through the pages ahead to get a glimpse of what is coming up.  But I never read the last line.  I love that you found a whole other group besides you that does, though!  There's a tribe for everything!

  8. Zan Marie

    First lines are so important, but they take time for me to discover. I think one of my favorites is from Diana Gabaldon’s VOYAGER–He was dead. Only he’s also the POV and you find out that being dead isn’t as easy to achieve as the character thought it would be.

    Emma Jean’s first line certainly caught my attention. 😉

  9. Charlotte Dixon

    Now that is a great line!  And even greater knowing that the character is dead.  Amazing! And I'm pleased that the first line of Emma Jean caught your eye!

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