The first line of your novel can be your best friend, but it takes work. It’s the single most important way to draw readers into the rest of your story. And almost no one talks about it.
Surprising, but there’s not a lot of info around on ways to improve the first line of a manuscript. Mentioned in passing, I usually see the first line noted as part of an overall discussion on editing. Considering the importance, you’d think there would be more. I think it warrants separate attention. So many new writers don’t create them well, but it’s only for lack of a bit of direction.
When submitting your work to a publishing house, you don’t want the intake editor tossing it aside only because they weren’t interested enough by the first line to keep reading.
You want them to keep reading until they’re caught and know they can’t live without your story. And need to publish it.
Readers also have a short attention span when checking out new stories. You don’t have much time to catch their attention, either, so you want to hook them in. Quick. Make sure they like what they see in that first line and then the first paragraph and have to buy the book they have in their hand or online shopping cart. Your livelihood depends on it.
Let’s break it down. Some things to consider while creating your first line.
Create movement with your first line
The same consideration employed elsewhere in your work to keep it light and moving forward should go into that first line. What does this mean?
Don’t begin with a giant block of text. Nothing turns readers off faster than a massive information dump right out of the gate. This dampens movement, so lighten it up, make it lean. Use active language – don’t leave the reader swimming around in a first passive sentence and paragraph. Propel them forward into the next with the active language.
Keep that first line short, think about twenty words or less. It’s the juicy piece of bait to entice readers, remember. Then set the hook and reel them in. Don’t beat them over the head with where the story is going. Make every word count in the shortest presentation you can.
Make readers ask questions
With your first line, force the reader into asking questions. The kind that makes them read on to find the answer – “Why is he doing that?”, “Who is this guy?”, “Why would someone say that?”, “Where the heck are they?”, etc.. A host of initial questions in the reader’s mind draws them into your story on their own interest. If you don’t give them anything to wonder about, to be interested in, they won’t feel the draw to go on.
And make sure they’re good questions! You definitely don’t want the reader asking questions about your abilities, so make it productive.
It’s a device, so think about what you can get that first line to do for you, what benefit can you gain from it. Work that thing! Use it to say something important, reveal the underpin of the story in a few words, expose the conflict that must be overcome, set the tone in one sentence. Sometimes, a single line right up front prevents a large information dump in explanation later. This lightens up the later story making it an easier, more enjoyable read.
Open with dialogue
A first line of dialogue has a couple of benefits. Stories need narration, but remember, this introduces “cooling-off” or “slowing down”. Part of the ebb and flow in the pacing of how the story unfolds, the next piece of action or dialogue energizes the cooling-off effect and picks the pace back up. But in the opening? Yikes – you don’t want a “cool” opening that won’t draw anyone into the story. That would be counter-productive.
Using dialogue introduces a character. Bam. And they’ll do your job for you, revealing something about the story without need for narration. It’s also active language. How they say what they say reveals some of their character traits, even one, without a word of narration.
Don’t start dialogue at the beginning of the conversation – that’s boring. Choose a line that suggests the reader has walked in on the middle of a conversation. This can be a very effective first line with a lot of benefits.
Open with action
Try placing the beginning of your novel in the thick of action. Think Indiana Jones with the blockbuster opening action sequence. You don’t even know the rest of the story yet, but you can’t turn away, because it’s interesting and exciting. By the end of it, you’re already caught and invested. Create a similar circumstance in your novel. And no, this doesn’t only apply to action stories. Whatever your genre, get the reader into the action of your own story from the first word.
To do it, that first line needs to be “big” – it’s the opening of the action sequence. Make it match the level of action coming after it. Specific word choice is your friend here. Once you figure out what you want to say, then figure out what else you can convey in that same line through your word choices. Remember, we have a lot of different words in English to convey similar meanings that have different connotations. Using them well can net you unconscious points with readers – frightful conveys something less sinister than gruesome, just as dark means something different than cheerless. Words carry an implied emotional spin on them, so careful choices help you get inside your reader without their even understanding how.
Putting it all together, you can see how crafting a first line of dialogue in the thick of the action using careful word choices can net you a large number of benefits. It could be the difference between gaining a following and never selling anything. All good things to consider.
Caveat: Leave flashbacks and dream sequences (if you must have them) for later
Overall, both flashbacks and dream sequences, not done well, end up being tired tricks no one wants to see. When the first line of your story launches into one of these? It doesn’t stir up excitement or create movement. While you could start off your story this way, it’s not your best option. Better to use that real estate of your first line for better words that are sure to draw the reader in instead of making them roll their eyes.
Be bold and dive in!