PJ Sharon here, chatting today about “Killer First Lines”. So what constitutes a great first line? Is it action-packed? Does it evoke emotion or imply conflict? Maybe it sets the scene or reveals the tone of your story. Or does an awesome first line combine all of these elements and more in order to grab the reader and compel them to read on? Consider these first lines:
1) It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
2) It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
3) I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
4) You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. —Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)
5) 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 I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. —J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
6) Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. —Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)
These classic first lines might seem antiquated in terms of today’s genre fiction standards and rules, but they remain powerful examples of compelling prose. They say something about the author, expressing their unique voice, and setting the tone for what’s to come. They inherently ask a story question and open the eyes of the reader to a new world in which the author’s imagination comes to life on the page.
I spend a good deal of time contemplating first lines. I want my first line to pose a question to the reader—a question that compels them to read on and keep turning pages until that question is ultimately answered at the end of the story. In my current WIP, PIECES OF LOVE, the first line is, I’ve heard it said that it takes twenty-one days to make or break a habit. Hopefully that makes you wonder what habit our teen character must break. Maybe you’re asking what good habit she would like to adopt, and why she would be concerned about making or breaking a habit in the first place.
Here are a few more first lines. These are from more recent books and by authors some of you will recognize. Analyze each of them, not for what they say, but for what they tell you about the author and the story.
1) The day Honor Grace Holland turned thirty-five, she did what she always did on her birthday. She got a pap smear. Kristan Higgins, The Perfect Match, 2013
2) My fingers drum into the desktop, beating out the rhythm of my hammering thoughts. TL Costa, Playing Tyler, 2013
3) The Garretts were forbidden from the start. Huntley Fitzpatrick, My Life Next Door, 2012.
4) He lifted the limp body out of the trunk, wrapped the girl in a woolen blanket, and tossed her like a rag doll over his shoulder. PJ Sharon, Savage Cinderella, 2012
5) I’m a liar. I know it. I hate it. And I can’t seem to help myself. PJ Sharon, On Thin Ice, 2011.
Yes, I realize those last two are mine, but they are, nonetheless, decent examples of first lines that hopefully compel readers to read on. Notice the tone in each of the above first lines. With Kristan Higgins books, you know you’re in for some laughs and you can bet that every reader who read that first line had an instant smile plastered on their face. TL Costa’s book, PLAYING TYLER, puts you squarely into the mind of a teenage boy with ADHD. You can hear the noise in his head as he struggles to find focus. And in Huntley Fitzpatrick’s contemporary YA romance, you can feel that you are in for heartache and conflict based on this enticing first line that immediately makes you want to know the Garretts.
The opening line of SAVAGE CINDERELLA gives you a chilling look into the calculated actions of a serial killer and makes you instantly care for that little girl and wonder what happens to her next.
And in ON THIN ICE, teen readers are faced with a mirror into their own lives. What teenager can’t relate to the ever-tempting desire to lie?
Look at books you love. Analyze them for how that first line makes you feel. Does it propel the story forward? Does it grab you and pose a question that you have to know the answer to? In my opinion, as long as the first line makes the reader a) think, b) care about the story/character, and c) read on, the author has done their job.
Have you written any fabulous first lines you’d like to share? Can you think of any books you’ve read that had a killer first line?