C. C. Cedras author, Charles M. Schultz, Deborah Smith, Diana Gabaldon, fiction, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jami Gold, Janice Hardy, K.R. Brorman author, Larry McMurtry, Marcy Kennedy, novel writing, publishing, S.A. Young author, Snoopy, Stephen King
After “Once upon a time…”, that’s possibly one of the most famous first lines in fiction.
A great first line will get me every time, whether it’s a novel, a biography, a blog article or a Facebook post. Maybe it’s my journalism background from the time when the lede was all-important: who, what, when, where and – if possible – why?
Stephen King, one of the most prolific writers of our time, and who writes a great deal on the craft of novel writing, is masterful at hooking the reader straight out of the gate:
Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.”
The Shining, copyright © 1977, Anchor Books/Random House.
Articles by and about Stephen King’s first lines abound. Everyone seems to have a favorite. What is King’s favorite first line in a novel? When asked by The Atlantic*, he couldn’t choose – there were two.
From James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice:“They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”
From Douglas Fairbairn’s Shoot: “This is what happened.”
The three of us – KR Brorman, SA Young and I – have gone about this novel writing thing in an unorthodox way. That is, as you’ve read recently, we just jumped in thinking we had the start of a good series of books and, quite obviously, didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t start out studying and learning about how to write a novel, but once we figured out we were floundering, we have taken online courses, subscribed to writers’ periodicals and read numerous blogs and articles about the millions of factors one needs to know and – hopefully – master to write, publish and sell compelling novels.
The first line, the first 50 pages, how soon to introduce the Big Bad (thank you Buffy the Vampire Slayer) – we’ve given these and so much more a great deal of thought and discussion.
A favorite coach, writer and editor, Marcy Kennedy, wrote last week about how to read as a writer – in other words, not just for the pleasure and escape, but analytically, and learn how to adopt the good into our own writing. She provided an excellent exercise in judging how compelling the beginning of a book is and whether it is one that hooks the reader into reading on. These are questions we need to keep in the forefront:
- Did the first line hook me? Why or why not? How did they hook me?
- Did I want to keep reading? If I did, what made me want to keep going? If not, why not?
- What was the viewpoint character doing? How did you feel about them? Why?
Without fail, our favorite historical fiction writer, Diana Gabaldon, ticks these boxes:
To the best of Lord John Grey’s knowledge, stepmothers as depicted in fiction tended to be venal, evil, cunning, homicidal, and occasionally cannibalistic.”
Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade, Diana Gabaldon, Copyright © 2007, Bantam Dell/Random House
Coming at it from the other side, Jami Gold – another great teacher and author – has said, “Instead of looking at story openings as writers, we need to look at them from a reader’s perspective. As a reader, the main question we have when we start a story is, will our time be well spent? Will we be entertained or informed?”
Janice Hardy, whose blog Fiction University is chock full of great advice, posted in a guest blog one of the most entertaining first lines I’ve seen and now I want to read her book:
Stealing eggs is a lot harder than stealing the whole chicken.
Of her six points regarding first lines, (which echo Jami Gold’s views) these are the ones that resonate the most with me. She agonizes over a first line that gets to something that –
- intrigued and grabbed attention
- got to the action right away
- present[ed] a character readers would like
- show[ed] voice
- start[ed] with a person
Yeah, the sixth one about world building I’ll come back to someday if I ever think I could convincingly write fantasy.
One of my all-time favorite writers, Larry McMurtry, another king of the first line, has so many good ones that fit Janice Hardy’s criteria. Here’s one…
When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake – not a very big one.”
Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry, copyright © 1985, Simon & Schuster
(There’s a reason this book won a Pulitzer Prize.)
Okay, one more McMurtry, this may be my favorite:
Duane was in the hot tub, shooting at his new doghouse with a .44 magnum.”
Texasville, Larry McMurtry, copyright © 1987, Simon & Schuster
Hardy said, “A great first line instantly puts the reader in the mood to like the second line, and then they’re predisposed to like the first paragraph, and then the first page, and then the first chapter. Once you get them on your side, there’s a good chance you’ll keep them reading.” So simple, so right. So difficult.
At the risk of sharing spoilers, we’ve agreed to risk showing you our first lines. Please be gentle, all of these are works in progress.**
Book 1 – Eden’s Fall
“He’s not dead, and we’re going to find him. Or a body if I’m wrong. But I’m right.”
Book 2 – Winter’s Thaw
“Candace racked her brain trying to remember what she’d learned getting her first aid badge and what the current thinking was about rendering emergency help to someone having a stroke — if that’s what this was.”
Book 3 – Venus Rising
“Damn it, Will,” Frankie sniffled to no one and scrubbed the tears from her face with the ugly sweater, “wherever you are, I hope you’re miserable.”
It’s brave to quote some of our most admired authors in the same breath as offering up our darlings for your perusal.
It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”
Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez, Copyright © 1988, Alfred A Knopf, Inc.
Closer to our genre, what we’re calling contemporary romantic suspense, are so many heart-catching books by Deborah Smith:
By the time Gib Cameron found us, my sister and I were failed southern belles who could no longer count on the kindness of strangers.”
When Venus Fell, Deborah Smith, copyright © 1998, Bantam Books/Random House
You are not strangers, and you’ve always been so kind. We hope when we finally offer our stories to you, that you will be engaged from the first and that the tales will hold your interest and leave you wanting more.
Do you have all-time favorite first lines? Pleeeeeease share, we love this stuff!
* I commend this entire article to you. Stephen King is one of the most successful writers of any century for a reason, and he is incredibly generous with his insights into the craft.
**And, while we don’t have ISBN numbers yet, we consider this to be copyrighted material. Because we say so, that’s why.