Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

The Power of a Good First Line

This is expressed easiest by examples. The following are not limited to children’s books and includes current books as well as some classics. Mainly they are novel excerpts, but some are from picture books.
First lines
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984 by George Orwell
“I should of been in school that April day.” A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck
“‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
“That fool of a fairy Lucinda did not intend to lay a curse on me.” Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
“He came one late, wet spring, and brought the wide world back to my doorstep.” Fool’s Errand by Robin Hobb
“I intensely disliked my father’s fifth wife, but not to the point of murder.” Hot Money by Dick Francis
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
“‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.” Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
“In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.” Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans
“When May died, Ob came back to the trailor, got out of his good suit and into his regular clothes, then went and sat in the Chevy for the rest of the night.” Missing May by Cynthia Rylant
“All children, except one, grow up.” Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
“I was fourteen the summer Mama took off for the Birdcage Collectors’ Convention and had ourselves what is now know in this town as the Adrienne Dabney Incident.” send me down a miracle by Han Nolan
“Marylou loved everything about Herbie–how his slime trail glistened in the dark, how he could squeeze inside the cellar window, how he always found the juiciest tomato.” Slug in Love by Susan Pearson
Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but…” The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
“They had tried to destroy the Will, but that proved to be beyond their power.” The Keys to the Kingdom by Garth Nix
“Mrs. Eva Marie Olinski always gave good answers.” The View From Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg
“Thunder Bunny was a surprise.” Thunder Bunny by Barbara Helen Berger
“‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay
What I find in common will all these lines is they get a reaction from me. Sometimes it’s a double-take of “huh?” Other times it makes me want to know more about either the character or what is happening. Sometimes they make me laugh. Or sympathize. It may be that the language or cadence itself has appeal. But all of them make me want to read on. I’ve been hooked!
How to Build Your Own Good First Line
It’s doubtful that the very first line you write will be the one that stays as the first line of your book, especially for novel length works. I’ve had them be ripped out entirely, rewritten dozens and dozens of time, moved to a later chapter. I’ve also written most of the book and come back and created a new opening when I knew more about my characters.
Here are the categories from the previous post (thought they may be restated) plus some additional ideas to get you thinking of what might work best for your story..

  • Appeal to the Ear. Make the words attractive sounding.
  • Establish setting. This often will let us know time period – contemporary story, historical, rural, city, etc.
  • Foreshadow. Hint at the problem or action to come.
  • Generate questions for the reader. “How can that be?”
  • Look back before the present story actually begins. This should probably be brief.
  • Present the protagonist and/or antagonist. Show something of your character in the first line.
  • Present the victim. This most likely will apply to a mystery.
  • Raise the curtain on the action. Begin your story at the moment something goes wrong or the moment that is different.
  • Set the tone of the book. Is your story going to be a comedy, a mystery, or ?
  • Shock or surprise the reader. It may be something that surprises the reader or be a juxtaposition of ideas that are normally not put together.
  • Start with dialogue (internal or external). Let us hear your character talking or thinking.
  • State motive. Why is this character choosing this action?
  • Upset stereotypical images. Describe something/someone unusual or out of the ordinary. Express something in a new way.

Of course, some openings will fit in multiple categories.
Try openings a number of different ways. Set them aside. What one “haunts” you? What one do you keep thinking about? If none do, maybe you need to come at it from another direction. Find one that seems to express your story the best.
Test it, or several versions, on listeners. Try it with other writers, with children of the appropriate audience age. Ask them to answer the simple question “Does it make you want to read on?”
What if this just doesn’t work for you?
Don’t panic. Not all good books start with a compelling first line. Some begin more slowly. It’s the first paragraph or first page that reels the reader in. If that’s more your style, I suggest you study book openings that do that and see what they have in common.

Please follow and share:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *