This month I wanted to look at one of the most important parts of any novel, because as we all know, first impressions last. Lots of writers spend hours (days, weeks, etc.) agonising over their story’s first line, usually after the rest of the novel is written and edited – first drafts are always messy, and if your original opening line survives the cut then you’re some kind of writing legend.
There are a few ways to tackle the first line, but whichever way you decide to come at it it needs to be gripping and compelling. You want the reader to immediately need to know more so they continue reading. The stronger the first sentence – the more intriguing the introduction to your story and characters – the longer your readers will stick around. And ultimately, we want them to stick around until THE END.
Meet and greet
Possibly the most common way to start a novel, especially if you’re writing in first person, is to introduce the reader to your protagonist. Rather than a bog standard “Mary was sixteen with blonde hair and blue eyes”, you need to give us a detail about your protag that makes them unique and leaves us with some questions so we’ll keep reading.
“Mary was sixteen with blonde hair and blue eyes, according to the wanted posters”, makes us wonder what Mary could have done to make her a wanted criminal, especially at such a young age. It also gives some clues as to setting – wanted posters are a pretty rare sight in this day and age, so we might be travelling to the wild west in this (very rough) example.
Examples of the Meet and greet opening:
“After a year of slavery in the Salt Mines of Endovier, Celaena Sardothien was accustomed to being escorted everywhere in shackles and at sword-point.” – Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
“Walking to school over the snow-muffled cobbles, Karou had no sinister premonitions about the day.” – Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
Flash forward openings give us a sneak peek into the future, turning the rest of the book into a sort of flashback, e.g. “Looking back, I can pinpoint the moment when everything went wrong for me, but if I had to go back, I’d do it all again.”
We’re used to the protagonist of a book surviving to the end, so this kind of opening isn’t much of a spoiler for their survival (alternatively, if your MC dies at some point in the story, you could spoil that here to instantly grip your readers, e.g. “It was an unseasonably warm day in January when I died.”).
However, one tip I’d recommend is to actually hint at the story’s climax, which comes towards the end of Act Two, rather than its conclusion. Throw your readers in at the deep end, and then drag them back to the beginning, but leave yourself enough room to tie the loose ends up neatly after your flash forward.
Examples of the Flash forward opening:
“I like to imagine there were more of us in the beginning. Not many I suppose. But more than there are now.” – The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon
“I shouldn’t have come to this party.” The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
There’s a time and a place
Another popular way to open your novel is to ground your reader in its setting. You could do this easily if you’re using a diary or letter format, just write the date and location at the top right and get on with it. Or you can introduce your setting in a smoother way, such as, “July in Scotland wasn’t unlike February in Scotland, wet and grey.”
If your setting is a different country, or a fictional place with its own language you’ve created, you might throw in a word of the foreign language to let your readers know immediately they’re being transported to a far off land.
Examples of the Time and place opening:
“On the second Sabbat of Twelfthmoon, in the city of Weep, a girl fell from the sky.” – Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
“The servants called them malenchki, little ghosts, because they were the smallest and youngest, and because they haunted the Duke’s house like giggling phantoms, darting in and out of rooms, hiding in cupboards to eavesdrop, sneaking into the kitchen to steal the last of the summer peaches.” – Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
Shock and awe
Is there anything more gripping than a first line that throws you straight into the action? Some readers aren’t fans of this kind of opening, but when done right, we can learn a lot about our protagonist by being thrown into the middle of the action, at the same time as launching the story full throttle. Something like, “Lia sprinted through the trees, thanking whatever deity was watching over her she’d worn her running shoes this morning instead of her heels.” We know Lia’s a runner, probably agnostic, and she’s either running late or being chased – but we’ll have to keep reading to find out which it is!
Examples of the Shock and awe opening:
“It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size.” – Red Sister by Mark Lawrence
“He was an easy mark.” – City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
Some openings deliberately mislead the reader, allowing us to believe something about the protagonist or their situation that is later revealed to be not quite true, or that is put in a new context that gives it a different meaning. This can be a fun way to start your story, especially if you love a good plot twist and have a mind-blowing revelation in mind. (I’ll point you in the direction of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn for an A* example of misdirection, despite it not featuring in the first line.)
I wouldn’t recommend outright lying to your readers, or tricking them to the point they feel deceived. Ideally you want the revelation to be a good, credible surprise rather than feeling like a plot hole or a mistake. Your readers have dedicated a lot of their personal time to reading your story, and (hopefully) they’re invested in your characters, so you don’t want to anger them with any deus ex machina style explanations or about-face turns. The art of misdirection is a delicate one, so beta readers are a must with this style of writing!
Examples of the Misdirection opening:
“I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I wouldn’t have imagined it like this.” – Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
“I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.” – Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
Open a dialogue
Another common opening, albeit controversial, is the use of dialogue as the first line. Some readers prefer to feel anchored in context before any dialogue is introduced, at the very least so they know who’s speaking and why they should care about this person. But, like with every style of opening, when done right it can be used to devastating effect.
This method works well if you’ve included a prologue, or some kind of introduction before the main story begins, so your readers already have an idea of what they’re getting themselves into.
Examples of the Dialogue opening:
“You all know why you’re here.” – Nyxia by Scott Reintgen
“Beware the goblin men,” Constanze said. “And the wares they sell.” – Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones
Ultimately, there are a hundred different ways to start your novel, and only one that is right for your story. There are several opening styles that have fallen out of favour, such as opening with a dream or having your protagonist looking into a mirror, but trends come and go, and new twists on an old theme are always fun.
If you’re taking part in NaNoWriMo this year, leave your username in the comments and I’ll add you as a writing buddy! (I’m lyndleloo, by the way.) Best of luck with your WIP, I hope you smash your goal, whether that’s to hit 50k and win Nano, or your own personal target (with a six month old and a day job I’ll be happy to hit 20k!).
The Author Toolbox Blog Hop will be back in January 2019 (how fast has this year gone?!), click the link to check out the other blog posts in the hop and join in on the fun next year.