How to write a killer first sentence
by author Jodi Meadows
Sometimes they come to us in a lightning bolt of brilliance.
Most times we must slave over them for hours/days/weeks until we finally get something that might work. With a little more editing. Or a complete rewrite. Oh dear commas why is this so hard???
First lines are things we love to whine about because the story has to start somewhere, right? Usually with that line. And some of us are frozen and unable to move on until the first line is perfect.
Hence the angst.
WHO REALLY CARES ABOUT THE FIRST LINE ANYWAY?
Oh, you mean besides agents, editors, editorial/acquisitions boards, marketing people, book buyers, booksellers, librarians, and readers?
Besides all them?
No one, I guess.
FINE I GET THE POINT. WHY ARE FIRST LINES SO IMPORTANT THOUGH?
An effective first line does a lot of heavy lifting. It will hook the reader, intrigue them, draw them into the next paragraph, and — if it’s especially well-written — give the reader a clue about the entire story.
An effective first line is the hook. How many times have you opened a book, read the first line and, eh. Put it down. Or maybe you’re kinder and give it a little more time, but still, you’re waiting to be drawn in.
Oh the other hand, what about the times you opened a book,, read the first line, and went, “Hello! I will end anyone who comes between this book and me. I must read this. The fate of the world depends on it.”
The second thing is more fun, right?
THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN CRAFTING A FIRST LINE:
When I’m working on a first line, I put a lot of thought into these things:
1. Pacing/structure: Do I want it to read quickly? Slowly? How do I want the reader to read it? If I have a long, comma-filled sentence in a fast-paced fight scene, I . . . may want to rethink that long, comma-filled sentence and whip out something snappier.
2. Content: What do I want to put in the sentence? Emotion? Action? Thoughts? How does this lead into the beginning scene? And is this event/thought/feeling actually interesting?
3. Mystery/intrigue/hook: I want the reader to ask questions, to be compelled to read on because whatever happens in the first sentence is that awesome.
4. Foreshadowing/symmetry/mirroring: I like my beginnings and endings to match. This often involves knowing where I’m going with the story before I write the first sentence — or heavy rewrites of the first sentence. But I like to begin as I mean to go on, and to see how much of the heart of the story I can capture in one or two sentences.
Writing a killer first sentence isn’t easy. Not one bit. But think about all the fantastic first sentences that stick with you. Worth the sweat? Yes.
SOME OF JODI’S FAVORITE FIRST LINES!
One of the best things about this panel is I get to bring out the examples! And since we’re made of pixels, you didn’t just see me go into the other room and come back with a huuuuuge stack of books.
PARANORMALCY by Kiersten White: “Wait– did you– You just yawned!” The vampire’s arms, raised over his head in the classic Dracula pose, dropped to his sides.
Why this is awesome: There’s a vampire. And the main character–she is yawning at it. Not only is this hilarious, but it gives the reader a great idea of Evie’s attitude toward things everyone else is afraid of. Right off, we know Evie, and we know her world.
SHIVER by Maggie Stiefvater: I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by the wolves.
Why this is awesome: There is a girl bleeding in the snow! And wolves! Wolves nommed her! Except obviously she survived, because she’s remembering it. So what happened? Immediately I’m drawn into the lyrical voice, the conflict, and the suspense.
THE NEAR WITCH by Victoria Schwab: It starts with a crack, a sputter, and a spark.
Why this is awesome: Hello, fire! This is lyrical. The prose draws me into the story and makes me want to know what’s going on. And, after reading the story, I look back at the first line and that is how the story starts. This line is made of magic.
PEGASUS by Robin McKinley: Because she was a princess she had a pegasus.
Why this is awesome: I want to be a princess and have a pegasus. This sentence makes me want to know more about the relationship between princesses and pegasi.
HOURGLASS by Myra McEntire: My small Southern hometown is beautiful in the haunting way an aging debutante is beautiful. The bones are exquisite, but the skin could use a lift.
Why this is awesome: Can’t you just picture this? The analogy is spot on. We’ve all seen faces like this, and comparing a town to them — yes. This shows us there’s an old beauty to the town, and a personality to go along with it.
MOONGLASS by Jessi Kirby: I read once that water is a symbol for emotions. And for a while now I’ve thought maybe my mother drowned in both.
Why this is awesome: This . . . just makes me swoon. It’s gorgeous. Evocative. And it’s really, really sad. It makes me want to know more.
This list is actually trimmed waaaay down from what I originally had, because it was getting too long. Besides, I had to leave a few books for you guys to give me examples! What are some of your favorite first lines? Why?
Jodi Meadows lives and writes in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, with her husband, a Kippy*, and an alarming number of ferrets. She is a confessed book addict, and has wanted to be a writer ever since she decided against becoming an astronaut. INCARNATE, the beginning of The Newsoul Trilogy, will be published January 31, 2012 by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers *A Kippy is a cat.
INCARNATE by Jodi Meadows: About the only girl who is new in a world where everyone is perpetually reincarnated, and her quest to discover why she was born, and what happened to the person she replaced.
Coming January 31, 2012 from Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.