Kickin’ It Off Right: A Novel’s First Line

In the last couple of weeks, I re-read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. The first chapter is an excellent opening — weaving the setting, creating a mood, and illuminating the main character. But it all started with a great first line:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

Simple enough, right? Surely nothing too special about it. But that sentence sets up the whole novel. It tells the reader quite a lot actually. Here’s what you get from that one line:

Manderley mansion

  • The main character is in the present, yet looking back on events of the past. (She is.)
  • Her story revolves around a place called Manderley. (It absolutely does.)
  • The name Manderley itself has a tone, a rhythm, a ring to it that sounds important, classic, and perhaps rich. (It is all that.)
  • She has a recurring dream, so something that happened at Manderley haunts her still. (With good reason.)
  • She is well-spoken and direct, connoting something about her background, education, socioeconomic status, and/or personality. (Contrast that tone with a teen fiction or horror novel narrator.)

Writers, agents, editors, and publishers all talk about the importance of hooking a reader at from the first page. Even from the very first line.

In an Immersion Class last year with writing coach Margie Lawson, I took my first 15 pages of Sharing Hunter, a young adult contemporary novel still under construction, and sifted down to about 3 pages. I originally thought I had a pretty good first line, but when I reconsidered it from a broader point of view, I realized that it didn’t tell you much:

To this day, Chloe blames tequila and Mrs. Schiller.

So what? All I know from that is there’s some girl named Chloe who drinks tequila, knows someone named Mrs. Schiller, and something happened in the past that she blames on other stuff/people. Is Chloe the only main character? No. Is Mrs. Schiller especially important in the novel? No. Is tequila an ongoing theme? No. Do I have any idea from this line where and when Chloe is in her life? No.

Part of my rewrite was the realization that I needed a new first line! Now the opening reads:

When Chloe suggested sharing a boyfriend their last semester of high school, Rachel didn’t completely freak. 

This one works much harder. What does this first line tell you?

  • Who the main characters are — Chloe and Rachel.
  • That it’s a young adult novel since they’re in high school.
  • Who instigated this crazy idea (Chloe), and thus a little about the kind of person she is.
  • The age of the main characters — high school seniors.
  • The novel’s premise — Good heavens, they’re going to share a boyfriend?
  • Rachel didn’t completely freak, meaning she freaked a little. But not enough.

There’s actually quite a lot packed in that first sentence.

I’ve been focusing more and more on crafting my first lines and paragraphs just so, making sure the set-up is there. Not simply for the opening scene, but for the whole novel. That first line makes a story promise — a promise to the reader about what this particular novel will be like. Will it be serious? Funny? Snarky? Scary? Is there a theme or setting the novel revolves around? If so, what is it? What is the novel’s genre? Is this teen fiction? Horror? Romance? What kind of person is the main character or the antagonist (if you start with him)?

First lines don’t have to give the reader a ton of information, but they do need to foreshadow what’s coming. They promise something to the reader, and the novel must fulfill that promise. Here are a few other wonderful opening lines from novels I pulled off my shelf:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen

“As an interactive horror experience, with beasts from Hell, mayhem, gore, and dismemberment, it was an impressive event. As a high school prom, however, the evening was marginally less successful.” – Prom Dates from Hell, Rosemary Clement-Moore (two lines, but still…)

“I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods.” – Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis (indeed, it’s a retelling of the Cupid & Psyche myth)

“You wouldn’t think we’d have to leave Chicago to see a dead body.” – A Long Way from Chicago, Richard Peck (from the prologue, we know this is a middle-grade book about kids visiting their grandmother, so this opening line is particularly intriguing)

“I was thirteen when I found out why my mother left me.” Red, Kait Nolan

“Digging graves is hell on a manicure, but I was taught good vampires clean up after every meal.” Red-Headed Stepchild, Jaye Wells

“In the great green room, there was a telephone and a red balloon and a picture of the cow jumping over the moon.” Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown

That first line should signal what will be important in this particular story and the kind of person who is narrating it. It should reveal something about the plot, the character’s longing, the tone of the novel, or the theme. If the first line doesn’t do one or more of these things, it isn’t working hard enough.

ROW80 Update

And speaking of working hard enough, here’s a look at my own writing progress. Following is my weekly update for A Round of Words in 80 Days, the writing challenge that knows you have a life. Here are my goals for the round:

Sweet Dead Life book cover1. Read 12 books. I finished book #4, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, and read book #5, The Sweet Dead Life by Joy Preble. I’ve been meaning to read Preble’s book for a while, but I got a fresh jolt to finally do so with news that she’ll be at the Montgomery County Book Festival — which I’m hoping to attend. Next book on the list: Mila 2.0 by Debra Driza.

2. Complete two drafts of short stories. I rewrote the first chapters of two different short stories, then sent one of those to a fabulous beta reader (and marvelous author himself, Chris Hill) and received his feedback.

3. Take care of ROW80 sponsor responsibilities. Visited blogs on Sundays and Wednesdays. It was great to see all of the fabulous progress happening in ROW80 Land! Call this goal done. 

By the way, I sometimes have difficulty commenting on certain ROW80 blogs, which frustrates me. Here’s some advice I posted on Facebook — which got 24 likes, so I’m not alone.

Facebook status update

Also, for mid-aged and older folks like me, those fuzzy numbers and letters can be hard to read. You might want to recheck your blog settings. Consider which security measures will keep your blog spam-safe yet encourage easy interaction.

4. Edit at least once through Good & Guilty, young adult mystery. Finished making notes on the last 67 pages. Done for this week. For this coming week, I need to start making the actual edits! Wish me luck rainbows-and-fairy-dust courage and perseverance. Here I go!

What are your favorite first lines from novels? As a reader, what do you want to see in that initial hook? And how was your week?

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26 thoughts on “Kickin’ It Off Right: A Novel’s First Line

  1. The first line of “Rebecca” is one of my (and my mom’s) favorites. I even did a parody of it in my book “Sweeter Than W(h)ine,” but changed it…”Last night Deena Edelman dreamed she went to Red Wolf Stadium again, but this time, the Red Wolves were losing…” now it’s kind of boring, but it does tell who the main character is. I kind of like my line from “Mr. Short, Dark…& Funny…” “That’s it!” Jay Galloway said, throwing his car keys on the kitchen table of the small brown-sided ranch house that he shared with his younger sister.

  2. A very inspirational post Julie. Definitely something to remember when revising 🙂

    Ref: the blog commenting
    I’m SO with you. It usually seems to be the Blogger blogs where I encounter this. Sigh.

    Have a wonderful week.

  3. There’s one open that’s stayed with me since I was in 4th grade. S. E. Hinton’s Outsiders. “When I stepped into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.”

  4. Wow! What great progress, Julie. I love the revised first line you came up with.

    Interesting topic (Austen’s P&P line is one of my faves, btw), and certainly important to remember. Have a great week!

    1. Thanks, Kathy! I’m enjoying this round. (Much better than some previous rounds — in which head-to-desk banging was a constant possibility. 😉 )

      Have a great week!

  5. Here was one of my opening lines: There is always a price to pay for killing a man, no matter who the man, no matter what the reason.

    That gets most folks’ attention.

    Margie Lawson has a way of making us dig a little deeper doesn’t she?

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  6. Great stuff! Rebecca is on my list of to-re-reads, too. 🙂 My favorite first line from the books I read last year came from “A Good American.” It was, “Always, there was music.” Sigh.

  7. Ohmygosh you’re a beast! Of reading books that is! I’m so behind! I’m still working on my first 2 of the year. Getting sick and the last season of Dexter have really interfered.

    I love your breakdown of first lines. Rebecca is on my book club’s list as our October read and I’m hosting it! It’s one of my fave Hitchcock films and I’ve said that Mrs. Danvers is my inner editor. Good luck with your ROW goals!

    1. I love the idea of Mrs. Danvers as your inner editor. Ha! Have you ever read any of the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde? The main character is a literary detective, and in that fantasy world the literary police use Mrs. Danvers clones as troops to fight The Mispeling Vyrus. A formidable force indeed! LOL.

      Thanks, Jess!

  8. It’s kind of fun trying to settle on a first line for a novel. You’re right, it’s a very important part of the whole process. I guess it’s funny that I love the first line of Rebecca but didn’t like the book at all! I’m just not a fan of wishy washy lead characters…

    1. You didn’t like Rebecca? Yes, I know she’s frustrating at times, but I got how she could feel that way. Admittedly, she wouldn’t last long in our modern literary world…like try putting Mrs. DeWinter in the Hunger Games. She’d be gone in the first chapter. No kick-butt attitude from her! 😉

      Happy writing! Thanks for stopping by. And may all your first lines be brilliant!

  9. For me, the hardest part about first lines is that not only do they have to convey all those things, they also have to be captivating. We have to hook a reader without being cheesy or overly dramatic. The opening line of Yasmine Galenorn’s “Dragon Wytch,” stuck with me: “There was pixie dust in the air.” It doesn’t tell you everything, but it leaves you wanting more. How does the character know this? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? What happens next?

    Now you’ve got me thinking!

    I also have trouble with some blogs “eating” my comment. Sometimes I’m not sure if it’s because I use WordPress and it tends to happen with Blogger blogs–so maybe it has something to do with the way those two are communicating? It is disheartening when your comment disappears into cyberspace.

    1. I like your example. It doesn’t tell a lot, but the reader immediately knows something about genre and mood. In Wired for Story (great book, by the way), the author talks about how each part of a novel should push the reader forward by bringing to mind your question: “What happens next?” Keep the reader asking that, and they’ll likely keep reading.

      Thanks, Denise!

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