Ingredients Of A Great First Line

Golden Heart necklace2A special CONGRATULATIONS to our very own Femme, Joanna Shupe, whose historical manuscript, Drawn to the Earl, finaled in RWA’s Golden Heart contest! We’re all thrilled for her and wish her good luck in Atlanta!

I don’t know about you, but I’ve agonized over the first line in every one of my manuscripts. We’ve been told we only have a few lines, a paragraph, or maybe a page to draw the attention of an agent or editor. Talk about pressure. I recently attended a workshop on writing a fabulous first line, given by the wonderful Sarah MacLean. Let me share some of the ingredients Ms. MacLean shared to help writing your first line a little easier. I found them helpful and I hope you will, too.

Ms. MacLean said the first line of a manuscript should answer the question, “Why should I read this book?” and the answer should be, “Because I can’t not read it”. In an ideal world, you want your reader to pick up your book and never want to put it down. You want to keep them so engaged in your story that the reader loses all sense of time and place because all they know is your story. One of the wonderful aspects of today’s technology is that you can start a book on your e-Reader and resume reading it on your phone while in line at the grocery store or while waiting to pick up your child at swimming lessons.

Writing instrumentsDuring this workshop, I learned there are three elements to include in your first line to make it stronger: a sense of character, conflict, and voice. You want to leave your reader wanting more. What aspect of the character’s life is taking place at the start of the story? Are they running from something or making a fresh start? Or maybe they’re searching for something lost or that will help them realize a lifelong dream? Next, you should hint at the impending conflict the main character will face. What will this person need to overcome in order to achieve his or her happily ever after? Lastly, it should convey some element of voice. If your story a romantic suspense, it could convey some level of tension or fear that will set the tone. If you write on the contemporary side, a snarky comment about some crazy situation your heroine has gotten herself into.

One of the fun parts of this workshop is that we were asked to write down our first lines. They were read aloud and we provided feedback. I didn’t remember mine, but later went back and with the help of writer pal, RoseAnn DeFranco, re-wrote the first line from my second book, Love’s Second Chance.

Before:

Kate DiFrancesco knocked back a shot of Sambuca and tossed another into her cappuccino.

After:

Kate DiFrancesco knocked back a shot of Sambuca, the fiery liquor a welcome burn down her throat after the bombshell her family just dropped.

The Huffington Post article below is interesting and suggests that although all these components are important, don’t obsess and overthink your first line.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/09/writer-wednesday-first-sentences_n_820512.html#s236961&title=Mrs_Dalloway_by

While all this advice is important, the bottom line is that you need to write a great story. You can have the best first line in fiction writing, but it means squat unless you have a compelling story. The first line is the start and all the subsequent words and scenes need to keep the same tone and anticipation to make your reader want to keep going.

How about you? What’s the first line in one of your manuscripts? Does it have all three of these elements? Can you re-write it to make them stronger? We’d love to hear your before and after versions.

Maria

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17 Comments

  1. It’s great, Maria, that RoseAnn could help you. I’ve already found Jodi’s suggestion of a start to the first line helpful from our critique session the other night. All I needed was that little push, and your words of wisdom from your class–so helpful! I’m not ready to post it yet–need that fresh look time, but maybe I’ll come back and post later! Kristina R. helped me loads with my blurb, too. Sometimes we are way too close to all our carefully crafted details, to see the simple big picture, but someone else can zing right in on the right elements!
    Thanks, Maria!
    Jenna

    Reply
  2. Okay, Maria, you got me back on it, and so I’m going for it.

    Old: “I know exactly what was in my wallet because that’s the only money I had,” Evie Radnor ground out, attempting to keep a waver from entering her voice. She thrust the thin leather piece at the belligerent cashier, the dark slot where money sometimes nestled gaping empty.

    New: Short on cash for far too long, Evie Radnor knew exactly what was in her wallet—down to the dollar, the denominations, and yes, the cents, too. No way would she allow this smirking cashier to pocket money earmarked for her son.

    Overall, I think the new shows more about the character’s situation and some conflict, I’m missing the “waver in her voice” as a key to her emotional state/the importance to her, and am not sure I’m not losing my voice. Maybe I should add a “gulp” or an “Although she hated to draw attention to herself,” at the beginning of the second line?

    Anyone who reads, feel free to express your thoughts/suggestions! : )
    Thanks,
    Jenna

    Reply
    • Hi Jenna. I’m excited you posted a before and after! I agree that your revised version shows more about Evie’s situation and the conflict. I would suggest that rather than adding a telling phrase of how she doesn’t want to draw attention to herself, you show us.

      How about:
      After being short on cash for far too long, no way was Evie Radnor going to allow this smirking cashier pocket money earmarked for her son. Despite the urge to grab her empty wallet and bolt, she brushed her hair out of her face and met the eyes of the belligerent teenager.

      Reply
      • oooh, I love it, Maria! THANK YOU! Show don’t tell, of course!!!
        I neglected to say earlier (officially on the blog site) Congrats to Joanna! SUCH a HUGE BOON!
        Jenna

  3. Congrats to Joanna Shupe for being a finalist in a very competitive contest!

    Reply
  4. Thanks, Maria, for the shout out! I’m still a little overwhelmed by the whole thing. And thanks, Roni! It’s been a great ride thus far, and I’m excited for RWA 2013.

    I love first lines! I’ve also rewritten mine a bunch of times. And I did borrow Julie’s suggestion for my WIP. 🙂 So I think it’s almost easier to have someone tell you what lines from your WIP really grabbed them, then adapt those for the first lines.

    What you and Julie just came up with rocks! Well done!

    Reply
    • You can’t leave us hanging…please share (if you want). I agree that it helps to get feedback about what does or doesn’t grab you with the first lines. Sometimes it’s tweaking just a few words that makes all the difference.

      Reply
      • Ok, here goes!

        Callie Barton didn’t want to be here, but she had no choice.

        She’d braved the sticky floor, the flat beer, and the stench of sweat for one purpose: to find Jackson West. He was the only lawyer in town, and he had a certain…reputation for being a man who got things done. Which was exactly the kind of man she needed.

      • Thanks! Good.

        Why not start with your second line? Or…

        Callie Barton didn’t want to endure the sticky floor, flat beer, and stench of sweat, while on a quest to find the only lawyer in town, but she had no choice.

        It puts the reader completely in the setting and lets us know she’s desperate. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Mia

     /  April 19, 2013

    CONGRATULATIONS JOANNA – I loved hearing your announcement, really happy for you.

    My first lines – which, I’m not sure the new version is staying but the old is def gone. Most YA stories are written in first person. This story is upper YA so one change I made was to third person. Also I think I started the story in the wrong spot so I deleted a whole scene. (Yes, this is the story I deleted 40K on about a week ago. I’m struggling)

    OLD: I’m sitting on my porch waiting for him to arrive. I’m so used to him being late, it is a surprise to see Patsy drive up so soon.

    NEW: No girl ever likes to listen to her mother. And it is completely annoying when they are proven correct.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Mia! It’s an honor, for sure. Not sure how I landed there, but I’m pleased as all get out.

      Like the new opening much better! I think the “they” in the second sentence is not the right pronoun. It should be “she,” I think.

      Reply
    • Hi, Mia. We’ve missed you on our blog, so welcome back!

      Ah, the infamous mom advice. I remember that and now that I am a mom it’s funny how the tables turn around. Your re-worded opening is much stronger. I agree with Jenna’s suggestion to remove the ‘and’ and combine into 1 sentence:

      No girl likes to listen to her mother, especially when she’s proven to be completely right.

      Nice job. Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
      • Mia

         /  April 19, 2013

        Thanks for the help ladies. I’m glad I ran it by you. Now it might be an opening I can keep.

  6. Jenna Blue

     /  April 19, 2013

    Mia, didn’t know you were writing a YA. Cool! And my helpful hint (which I gave to Jaye too) is to avoid “it” and “and” in the opening sentences…You could just leave them off & use a sentence fragment–it’s pov, so you can easily get away with that! Thanks for sharing! Curious to know what mom is correct about! : )
    Jenna

    Reply
  7. Jenna Blue

     /  April 19, 2013

    Joanna,
    I chose well! : ) Maria marked it too, didn’t she?
    Jenna

    Reply
  8. Great info, Maria. I love reading everyone’s opening lines. Mia, yours gets right to the heart of a YA conflict. Joanna is right about the pronouns. Awesome!

    I haven’t reworked my chapter since our feedback session, so I’ll have to share my before and after privately. Sorry!

    Reply
  9. RoseAnn DeFranco

     /  April 23, 2013

    Hi, Sorry to join the party late. Maria, LOVE that you blogged about this. I have since modified nearly every opening line to every manuscript. I love the transformations listed in the opening lines above.

    Here is the old of my YA. When it was read during the workshop, I wanted to shrink and hide as it really doesn’t contain any of the elements of what makes a great first line:

    As I stepped onto the small stretch of beach, sand crunched beneath my sneakers and the crisp sea air kissed my cheeks, invigorating me with tiny sparks of energy for the night to come.

    New (I cheated and added a few more lines):

    I stepped onto the small stretch of beach and searched for Conley McGuire. The crisp sea air blew fresh and alive, invigorated me for the night to come. Sparks of heat kissed my cheeks. He was near.

    Another great thing I recently heard was to assign a verb to every character in a story. The main character of this story is in search of many things which is why I added searched to the first line as well. The idea of a verb is very simple, but powerful.

    Great blog post. Love all the chatter in the comments!

    RoseAnn

    Reply

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