Amanda Luedeke

November 29, 2016

Thinking about writing: What makes a great first line?


brick green no smile b:wIf you’re not familiar with me from my previous blog posts here (I stopped months ago) or my wildly popular Twitter account (where I’ve tweeted exactly six times in the past two years), my name is Erin Buterbaugh and I was an agent at MacGregor Literary working out of beautiful Denver, Colorado. My favorite piece of the agenting process, apart from the vast cash payouts, of course, was the editing/story development aspect of the job—I loved helping my authors make sure their manuscripts were in the best possible shape for showing, so the craft/mechanics side of writing seemed like the perfect area to focus some of my blog efforts on.

First lesson—never end a sentence with a preposition, the way I just did. (Second lesson—once you know the rules, do whatever the heck you want, the way I just did!) So with Chip on vacation and taking a bit of time away, I’m going to share a series I did on his blog a while back. I’ll try to split my time pretty evenly between the mechanics side and the story/writing side of things so this doesn’t become “just” a grammar series, but until people stop sending me submissions in which the commas are outside of the quotation marks, I’m going to carry on reminding people of the rules Miss Stinson tried to teach them in 9th grade.

Since this is the first post of my new blog presence, I thought it would be fitting to look at what makes a great first line of a book. I’m sure you’ve read the same lists I have on Buzzfeed of the “21 Greatest First Lines in Fiction” or “The 100 Best Opening Lines of All Time,” etc., so rather than re-print all of those tired old “It is a truth universally acknowledged that it was the best of times and the clocks were striking thirteen” lines that everybody picks for their lists, I thought I’d pull some on my favorite first lines from children’s literature and look at some of the lessons they teach about great first lines.

“All children, except one, grow up.”

This simple first line from James Barrie’s Peter Pan is only six words long, yet it accomplishes what some would argue is the most important function of a first line: hooking the reader. Barrie immediately establishes a scenario that incites curiosity in the reader about this one child that doesn’t grow up. That simple, tiny parenthetical phrase sets up the entire story that follows– this is going to be about an extraordinary child (the “except one”) who doesn’t grow up. No dragging in pixie dust, Neverland, pirates, clapping as a method of fairy first aid, or even any names– in fact, none of the specifics of this story’s universe are included in this first sentence, yet it immediately presents the main premise of the story. Fantasy writers in particular should take note of this wild and subversive idea of right away hooking the reader with the black and white of what’s happening/going to happen rather than starting with four names in a made-up language and an immediate sighting of a strange creature– I’ve seen a bunch of opening sentences on fantasy manuscripts that are so clogged with details and names and fantasy-scenarios that, rather than feeling drawn into the story, I feel very distanced from it, and that’s not how you want your readers feeling at this stage in the game. You have plenty of time for world-building; invite them into the story right away with your opening sentence.

“The first week of August hangs at the very top of the summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.”

The first line from Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt, doesn’t do much in the way of drawing the reader into the action– it actually goes out of its way to describe a notable lack of activity– but it serves as an example of another effective function of an opening sentence: laying a foundation. The kind of first line I referenced above, with all the details about a story’s setting or time period dumped on the reader right up front, often reads as info-packed and overwhelming, but that doesn’t mean you can’t leave a few clues about the setting or a character right away– this gives the reader a foundation to build on as you gradually reveal more details. Natalie Babbitt paints a quick picture of a certain time of year, evoking the weather (probably hot) and the pace of life (slow) at the moment the story opens, and we absorb these details and are primed to interpret the characters and events to come in the context the author intended without her having to explain everything about this story world to us right up front.

“Hear and attend and listen; for this befell and behappened and became and was, O my Best Beloved, when the Tame animals were wild.”

First, if you have children and haven’t read Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories to them yet, you have some work to do. The above line is the opening line to the story “The Cat that Walked by Himself,” and though Kipling teaches the third lesson in just about every story in this collection, this one is my favorite example of setting the tone of a story in the first line. These stories are exotic and elaborate and told in a grand storytelling style that that evokes the Arabian Nights, and that rich language and style of delivery, as if to one favored listener rather than a reader, shines from every syllable of Kipling’s first line (and if it doesn’t make you want to read that story aloud, we can’t be friends). The first line of a manuscript can often clue the reader in right away as to the type of story he’s about to read and even what the author’s writing voice is like– a chilling or sinister first line can clue me in that I’m about to read a suspense novel, while a funny first line primes me to recognize the author’s sense of humor and look for it throughout a memoir or rom-com novel.

That’s all for the books I pulled at random from my overstuffed bookshelves, so the next time you’re composing an opening sentence, take a look at some of your favorite books in that genre and see how other authors have crafted effective opening sentences that hook the reader, lay a foundation, or set the tone. If you have a favorite opening line from a book of any genre, or requests/suggestions for craft and mechanics-related topics for future blog posts, leave them in the comments!

Erin Buterbaugh is a graduate of the writing program at Taylor University, worked as an agent with MacGregor Literary, continues to be a freelance editor and consultant with children’s authors, teaches at a university in Colorado, and is one of the most talented people I know. You can check her out on Facebook or on that Twitter account she rarely visits. And my thanks to Erin for letting me re-use her words! -Chip

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  • Aubrey Shepherd says:

    Haven’t heard from you in a while, so thought I would provide a suggestion for a future post. How about the role of repetition, when it is effective, when to avoid it. That or repetition, when is it effective, when to avoid it. Have I mentions that I haven’t heard from you in a while? Hope all is well.

  • Judith Robl says:

    Thought provoking post. Thank you for your insightful analysis. Most helpful.

  • An insightful and enjoyable post, Erin! I’ve been thinking about this as I consider rewriting the opening of my book and changing the first sentence, which I’ve loved for so many years. (I had a feeling that would happen.)

  • Bonnie Doran says:

    “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”–C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader”

    • Erin says:

      One of the best! Tells you about the character and the author’s voice and humor style right away. Thanks for commenting, Bonnie.

  • If I’m in a bookstore, I always read the first line before I buy a book. When writing a book, I will work on the first line over and over because I feel like if first lines are important to me as a reader, they are probably important to my readers.

  • Robin Patchen says:

    I love reading first lines of novels. Here’s my favorite by John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany.”

    “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because
    of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even
    because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the
    reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

    He has a lot packed into that one sentence–and it made me want to finish the book, even though it was wicked long.

    • Erin says:

      I love that line, Robin! And not just because it’s long and I have a soft spot for anyone who writes long, well-puncuated sentences. That book has been on my list of need-to-read for awhile, but after reading that line I’m bumping it up a couple spots! Thanks for sharing.

  • Excellent post, Erin! Thanks. If you don’t know about it already, you may be interested in a publication called “The First Line Literary Journal” that focuses on creating great first lines. The URL is Blessings!

  • I love great first lines, as well, and it’s definitely something I pay attention to when I launch into a book (writing one or reading one!).

  • Cameron Bane says:

    You’ve nailed one of my hot buttons, Erin; I love a great first line. Here’s one from Burning River, the followup to a work of mine Chip is showing now:

    “Blood steams; most people don’t know that.”

  • Rudyard says:

    Before taking over the world, she first had to acquire her own byline.

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