Monday, March 18, 2013

The First Line Makes the Paragraph Makes the Book

When I was in school, my professor always told us the first line of our short story should be something that sets up the story. It should be engaging, powerful, and reveal something about the atmosphere of the book. (And she really frowned upon us opening anything with a line of a dialogue.)

Something I've learned in my years since college and my time as an editor: the first line of a book really does matter. It's immediate insight into the voice of an MC. The first line of the book carries a lot of weight, and the weight is very different than the last line. It's the first chance to make a reader invested in the book. Whereas the last line is the image that a reader is left with forever. We need an engaging first line to lead into an engaging first paragraph to make way for a fantastic book.

Let's look at some first lines:

I must’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere in the darkness. 
~Salvation, my short story from college

Jenny-May Butler, the little girl who lived across the road from me, went missing when I was a child. 

~There’s No Place Like Here by Cecelia Ahern 

  My hands are dying.  
~Fall For Anything by Courtney Summers

The Narrows remind me of August nights in the South.
~The Archived by Victoria Schwab

Those were the last words I could remember.
~Infinite Days by Rebecca Maizel

You saw me before I saw you. 
~Stolen by Lucy Christopher

It all started when the cold came. 
~ Fall Apart, an unfinished MS by me

Gram is worried about me. 
~The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

Everything changed the night I saw a burning man fall from the sky.
~Falling Under by Gwen Hayes

There's something powerful about a great first line. All of these ones I've chosen are first lines that set up character or plot or voice. And if you're interested in the first line, you'll want to read the paragraph. A good first paragraph is what captures a reader, so failing to use it properly means potentially losing people. I'm not going to do all of them, but let's look at some of these first paragraphs.

I'm going to cheat and start with the first two paragraphs of The Sky Is Everywhere because they are just so good. 

Gram is worried about me. It's not just because my sister Bailey died four weeks ago, or because my mother hasn't contacted me in sixteen years, or even because suddenly all I think about is sex. She is worried about me because one of her houseplants has spots.

Gram has believed for most of my seventeen years that this particular houseplant, which is of the nondescript variety, reflects my emotional, spiritual and physical well-being. I've grown to believe it too. 

I love these opening paragraphs because it tells you so much about the character, and the fact that sticks out the most isn't her sister's death or her age or her mother or sex -- it's that houseplant. A houseplant that is relevant throughout the entire book. This opening is quirky enough to stick out while still setting up the story and the upcoming struggle.

This next one is from Stolen by Lucy Christopher -- which is an amazing, amazing book and if you have not read it then go get it right now. 

You saw me before I saw you. In the airport, that day in August, you had that look in your eyes, as though you wanted something from me, as though you'd wanted it for a long time. No one had ever looked at me like that before, with that kind of intensity. It unsettled me, surprised me, I guess. Those blue, blue eyes, icy blue, looking back at me as if I could warm them up. They're pretty powerful, you know, those eyes, pretty beautiful, too. 

That may not seem like much, but trust me when I say: it is. It's setting up plot, character, voice. It's setting up the first moment where Gemma meets Ty and all hell breaks loose. It's powerfully written, just like that whole book. (Seriously. Go read it.)

This last one is from my own stuff. A story I started (and didn't get to finish because of having all the deadlines.) It's not edited and I'm not even sure it's worth sharing, but I love this opening.

It all started when the cold came. Fast, brittle, unexpected. That first morning in late October when it snowed on the way to school, and I stopped walking to watch it all fall around me. I love that feeling, being suspended in air while the frosty flakes of broken clouds fall around and land on my face. I felt like I was moving, losing control, even though my feet never left the ground. I felt like I was a snowflake. I was a huge ball of fluff reaching out toward the ground like a star—a shooting star. A star that falls apart and dissolves away. I’m pretty sure that was the day—the exact that moment—life started to unravel.  

The snow was too early. Even in New England, it didn’t snow that early. I’ve been searching for The Moment for months, and that was it.

That's an intro I like because the whole story is this girl has seen how one moment affects another and another and another--until all she's left with is the pieces of her life that don't go together anymore, and she's trying to understand it. So I like that intro, even if I never write again, because it's her looking beyond herself to find someone to blame -- and that's really the cause of the whole story.

Anyway---the whole point of this was to show how first lines are powerful. A powerful first line will create a memorable first paragraph and keep people reading. I'm a big fan of great first lines (and last lines) so I would definitely encourage you to find the moment, that image, that line that sets up the whole story and make the first one count.

What are some of your favorite first lines or paragraphs? Feel free to share from your own work or from your favorite books! 


  1. Whoaaaaaaaaaaa now I want to read Stolen like nobody's business. Thanks for a great post, Danielle!

  2. The all important hook. Pull the reader in from the first sentence.

  3. I LOVE that you used Gwen Hayes' FALLING UNDER... fabulous beginning... even MORE fabulous book! Thanks for the great post.