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:
- 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.
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:
1. 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.
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?