Horns were honking at my double-parked car, my 2-year-old was pulling at my skirt, and the bookstore was overheated, but I was standing in the aisle desperate to find a book for next week’s train trip. How fast could I pick something? Aside from glancing at the covers, I had enough time to read only the first few lines before making my decision.
Far fetched you think? Well, maybe, but the fact is most people choose a book within the first few minutes of opening it. So your first line had better intrigue the reader.
Remember these classic first lines: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” (A Tale of Two Cities), “Call me Ishmael” (Moby Dick), and “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (Anna Karenina)? And how about these modern examples: “When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy” (Kaye Gibbons’s Ellen Foster) and “The horror was in the waiting—the unknown, the insomnia, the ulcers” (John Grisham’s Gray Mountain)?
I’ve been collecting impressive first lines for years. I write each one on an index card with the title and author and then sort the cards into categories. Is this starter magical, ironic, scary, or humorous? Does it express a feeling I’ve had, perhaps a shameful or fearful one? In other words, what makes that starter riveting? Is that first line an imaginative description of the setting, a narration in which the reader learns about a problem, or the hint of conflict embedded in a piece of dialogue? Categorize enough of them and you’ll get a sense of what kind of starter you want for your novel.
Okay. You’re within reach of that memorable starter. You might have to rewrite it a dozen times, but you keep getting closer. The reader in the bookstore will soon be hooked, for the moment anyway. Now it’s time to plunge her into the heart of your story. That means action, drama, and emotions; raising the questions that will be resolved at the end, drawing engaging characters, foreshadowing the danger to come, and alerting her to any peculiarities in the world she’s entering. In the first scene of Peace Like a River, Jeremiah Land addresses his newborn but lifeless son saying, “Reuben Land, in the name of the living God I’m telling you to breathe.” When Baby Reuben gasps for air, the reader understands the story will take miracles into account. So, if the setting, point of view, or angle of your novel is peculiar, let the reader know that in the first scene too.
If you want to grab that reader in the bookstore, then save the lengthy descriptions and backstory for later. Instead, while you have her attention, hook her with a memorable first line and then draw her in with the promise of conflict and excitement.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
June Trop and her twin sister Gail wrote their first story, “The Steam Shavel [sic],” when they were six years old growing up in rural New Jersey. They sold it to their brother Everett for two cents.
Now associate professor emerita at the State University of New York at New Paltz, she devotes her time to writing historical mysteries with a connection to early science. Her heroine, Miriam bat Isaac, is based on the personage of Maria Hebrea, the legendary founder of Western alchemy, who developed the concepts and apparatus alchemists and chemists would use for 1500 years.
June lives with her husband Paul Zuckerman in New Paltz, where she is breathlessly recording the story of her plucky heroine’s next life-or-death exploit.