Your life depends on one sentence … what would you say?
A little drastic. But you kept reading. Right? Which was the point. First lines matter. A lot. Especially for a young audience. Texting and tweeting has narrowed the overall attention span to 140 characters. Or less.
Which means you have to grab your reader on the First Line, hook them by the First Paragraph, and hold them captive by the First Page.
Richard Peck’s essay on the importance of opening lines (November 2006, Horn Book Magazine) changed my writing. He said that, “The most important secret of writing . . . you are only as good as your opening line.”
I thought that was kind of harsh at first. Then, I spent a lot of time going to bookstores and libraries and reading ONLY first lines. And I came to see that he’s right. The books that had amazing first lines I ended up reading.
A great opening line shouldn’t be just about shock-value. It should set the tone of the story, reveal character, conflict, and theme. It’s the promise of the premise … in encapsulated form. Not easy to do. at all. I know (from first-hand experience). But when a first line is done well, it has an awesome effect on a reader! Something I also learned first-hand. Which is why, I now work on the opening line of a story until it has the grab-em-and-keep-em hook of a smash-hit movie trailer.
Gotta Love those “Firsts”…
From all those “one line stands” I fell in love with more than a few books
All from reading … one … single … sentence.
And if it can happen to me, I am sure it happens to young readers. When they read an opening line that takes their hand and leads them into a world of imagination and wonder.
Here are a few of my all-time favorite opening lines:
- “If your teacher has to die, August isn’t a bad time of year for it.” THE TEACHER’S FUNERAL by Richard Peck.
- “I come from a family with a lot of dead people.” EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS by Deborah Wiles.
- “When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news.” STORMBREAKER by Anthony Horowitz.
- “I witnessed the kidnapping of Betty Ann Mulvaney.” TEEN IDOL by Meg Cabot.
- “Being dead became fashionable approximately forty-five minutes after Samantha ‘the Divine’ Devereaux came back from summer break.” DEAD IS THE NEW BLACK by Marlene Perez.
- “My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog.” BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE by Kate DiCamillo.
I agree that setting the tone, revealing character, conflict & theme are important, but (and this is more difficult to define) I think you have to give it some heart, so that there’ll be something for the reader to care about. Actually, I think that because of a writing class I took, so can’t say I came up with it on my own.
Elizabeth Fais said:
You are absolutely right Liv. Getting our readers to care about the characters is THE most important thing we have to accomplish as writers. And that has to be part of the hook in our opening line and first pages, for the reader to stay with the story.
Mike Schulenberg said:
Great post, Elizabeth…and that first picture you used is great too 🙂
Elizabeth Fais said:
Thanks, Mike! How’s Texas treating you?
Some great first lines there. I struggle with that in my books all the time. Death seems to be a popular one for hooks. I picked up Feast of Souls by C.S. Friedman. First line: Imnea knew when she awoke that Death was waiting for her.