Monday, February 25, 2013

The First Five Pages, Part 2 The Opening Line

A couple of years ago, I took an online class on writing a great first chapter. (At the time I was sort of an online class junkie. Figured if I only learned one thing in every class I'd be light years ahead of everybody else. LOL!!!) Anyway, lesson one dealt with first lines. The workshop instructor was a newly published writer who was also new to giving workshops, so when no one posted their first line I jumped in to save her from embarrassment and from a crappy first lesson with my brilliant first line...

"I'm pregnant."

She lambasted me. (By this time I'd written 30 or so books and THAT LINE was the first line of one of my most successful books and she lambasted it? Wow. Bummer.)

She said things like, Sure, it makes me curious...but I don't know the people I'm curious about. I don't know who the people are who are involved. Who is she telling that she's pregnant?

Um...THAT'S why your eyes move to line 2. You ARE curious. And that's the biggest purpose of your first line. To get readers to read line 2 because they are curious.

Readers keep reading because they want to find out what comes next. Or as in my example above, they want to know who was speaking and who was she talking to and is this pregnancy good or bad.

Lots of writers believe the purpose of a first line is to "get readers in the mood" of the story which can be true. But if you give me a description of a forest I'm not going to be as curious from your "mood" first line as I would be if you said... My mother always told me to look before I leaped.

That's a mood line.  It's kind of curiosity laced with oh, yeah, I know THAT feeling. LOL Technically "look before you leap" could also be the book's theme. But primarily that line makes you curious. Readers wonder...Oh-oh, what did she do?

And they move to line two.

But notice they don't just move to line two out of habit. They move with curiosity driving them and questions in their heads. And looking for answers to those questions is what will keep them reading.

Notice, also, that good first lines... "I'm pregnant." and "My mother always told me to look before I leaped." both have TOTAL BOOK implications. The pregnancy is the heart of my category romance marriage of convenience.  "My mother always told me to look before I leaped" undoubtedly relates to a big complication which opens the story and probably drives the story.

You can use "Who stole my car!" as an opening line but if that stolen car isn't relevant to the whole story, your first line won't have the impact that readers long for. It will be one of those false openings that hook readers in then disappear in a puff of smoke. Readers are okay with those. But, ah, the other ones...the grabber first lines that have total book implications...they just work so much better!

Readers also want a little polish to your first line. "I'm pregnant." Is elegant in its simplicity in my marriage of convenience.  Using a "theme" first line like "My mother always told me to look before I leaped." shows thought.  The author had to think through the story before she could write her first line...which is why some authors don't finalize their first line until they write the whole book! (Unless you know your theme when you first begin writing!)

Unfortunately, it's the very fact that readers expect a "polished" first line that causes writers to believe the "setting" first line is so wonderful. It is easy to write something beautiful -- poetic even -- about the moon, the sky, the stars, the trees, the flower beds...and lots of writers use this first-line technique successfully. But go back to those books and you'll probably see that the moon, the sky, whatever, either leads right into theme or affects action.

ie The crisp light of the harvest moon led Sabrina Brown through the forest as she ran for her life. Crisp light of the harvest moon shows polish and gives a vivid image...but it also takes us right to action. Before our first line is over, we're running with Sabrina. We're also curious about why she's running and who is chasing her!


The sweet scent of sugar cookies drew me to the kitchen and the mom who believed sugar equaled love.

Reading that we realize that the protagonist's mom and 'sugar equaled love' are important to the story. And don't you wonder, after you read that first line, if our protagonist has a weight problem? Or if she's home because something drastic happened and she needs her mother's love?

Of course you do.

So the job of your first line is to make people curious! You can do it through action. You can do it through dialogue. You can tell the theme of your book in your first line and make readers curious as to how it's relevant.

But your first line has to make people curious!

Happy Monday...and I'll see you next week when we talk about backstory. (Shudder)


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