Quick Tips: First Lines

1. Keep it short.

Short sentences are easier to digest. They tend to convey simple concepts. They get straight to a point. Longer sentences are useful when you need to describe something bigger, more detailed, or more complex.

I’m sure you know that varying sentence lengths throughout your prose makes it stronger. Shorter sentences move the action along. Longer sentences add depths and may be useful in emphasizing an important concept. But some of the value of a long sentence is diminished in your first sentence because it’s already more important than any other sentence. As for the long sentence’s role in describing bigger, more detailed, or more complex ideas – be careful.

Your reader knows nothing. Even a highly intelligent reader may stumble upon a complex idea with no context. And I mean that regardless of the complexity of your story. In fact, the more complex your story the better off you are starting with something short and easily digestible. Something to ease us into things.

If you can’t keep it short, at least…

2. Keep it simple.

Length isn’t the only measure of an easily digestible sentence. Some sentence structures are easier to follow than others. The most important thing, regardless of sentence length, is that you convey a single digestible idea to the reader.

After you’ve spent an hour trying to come up with the perfect first sentence, you may no longer be able to tell if it’s simple or not. To know for sure, you need feedback. That is why, when I provide critique, I always stop to provide feedback on the first sentence before moving on. It has to be before I move on because that is the only time my perspective is pure. The only time it’s meaningful.

My feedback is not about how inherently hooky a single line is. It’s all about whether or not I stumbled over it, or worse – had to reread it. It’s also about whether or not I was confused. I may not know anything, but I don’t want to be confused for so much as a second.

I don’t comment on how inherently hooky the first sentence is because…

3. Understand that the purpose of the first sentence is to convince readers to try the second.

And so on and so forth. Eventually, I want to get hooked, but the first sentence need not carry the weight of the world on its shoulders. Some writers hyper-focus on the first sentence. This attitude can be a stumbling block in terms of finishing the story, or even getting it off the ground. Your first sentence does not have to make your story. In fact, it’s much easier for a first sentence to break your story than make it.

Yeah, there are a few of those lines… you know what I mean. The ones that are so awesome they make you stop to go, “Wow!” As a reader who is not afraid to put down a book, I can honestly say that I’ve quit reading books with first lines like that. They tend to get more time than usual, but they don’t make the book.

First sentences need to not be bad. They need to not confuse me. They need to say one thing I can wrap my mind around and then lead into something else.

4. Don’t start with a pronoun.

Pronouns reference proper nouns. If I don’t have a proper noun for reference, then they are not being used correctly. Worse, it’s inefficient. Amnesia stories or those involving nameless alien races aside, “he” tells me one thing about “him” – his gender. “Frank” tells me two things – his gender and his name.

Which leads me to…

5. Optimize your sentence.

You should optimize all your sentences, but if you’re going to slip, don’t do it in the first one. Every word should serve a purpose. All those rules for avoiding adverbs, redundancy, and overly long words when diminutive ones will do – up the stakes by an order of magnitude in the first sentence.

6. Avoid dialog openers.

This isn’t what I would call a hard and fast rule. (Oh heck, I hope you know all these rules can be broken if you insist – just understand the why so you can break them with purpose and style.) The trouble with a dialog opening goes back to the underlying issue with all first sentences – lack of context.

Dialog exacerbates this issue. Now, not only do you lack context for the story, but you also lack context for the speaker. Who is he? Or she? Where? What are they talking about? To whom?

Dialog rarely tells the reader anything concrete about the story. It’s usually a tease. And in that capacity, it is usually a throwaway line. It doesn’t convey purpose or meaning on its own.

Want to learn more? Join Beginnings with Christine Amsden, an online writing workshop through Savvy Authors: http://savvy.citysoft.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=Calendar.eventDetail&eventId=1456

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  1. Create the image in the reader’s mind. When you are writing it, you have the concept in your head. When the reader consumes it, they don’t. They are starting with a clear slate and seeking a foundation on which to build the story they have yet to read. Convey what they need to see when they first enter your world.

  2. My first novel begins with this line:
    “Hap Sing was sitting in his boat on the rolling waters of the ocean.”

    My second novel begins with this line:
    “Thomas the Poisoner was a mystery in the Kingdom of Ard.”

    My third novel begins with this line:
    “Mica dreamed of sitting on his small boat far from the bay of a small village both strange, yet oddly also somehow familiar.”

    The common thread is that they all introduce a character of importance to the story, and a small piece of the setting at the same time. The first and third novels begin with the imagery of a small boat on the ocean. This is deliberately suggestive of a character isolated, alone, and yet they are comfortable with that situation. The course of each story shows each character growing and becoming a part of a community. Each first line I use is supposed to represent a promise to the reader of things to come.

  3. I like to begin with character. My personal preference for openings is a character with a problem. But that’s not something I can generalize in quick and dirty writing tips. 🙂

  4. You said on G+ this would go on to be a guest article somewhere, well in that I’d add examples. It’s much easier to learn when we see what has been explained. Those examples cold be of the right and not quite right way of writing first lines.

    Love these tips. My favourite opening lines present me with a problem, but also have a clear voice. I also like something profound in its message, but that’s perhaps a little greedy. 🙂

  5. I always stumble over my first lines. Sometimes I just toss down a “for now” line and move on. The end often gives the beginning. Tip 3 eased my conscious a lot, and it makes sense. I worry about losing people on the first line, but it’s true. People rarely give up after the first sentence.

  6. Tips 3 is important. I almost made it tip #1 but I don’t want to understate the importance of the first sentence either. It is important — if I see a typo in the first sentence I’m done. (Typos happen and no amount of copy editing gets them all, but there is no excuse for missing one at the top except utter incompetence. 🙂 )

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