Annie Talks First Lines

I’ve had this post on my schedule for a while and I’m super pumped to finally be writing it!  First lines are crucial  in both writing and reading, so I’m going to talk about both sides of the coin: how I write first lines/what makes a good one while highlighting some of my personal favorites.

Let’s start with what makes a good first line by chatting about what makes a bad first line.  While these are my personal rules for starting a story how I like it, rules are meant to be broken.  Above all, follow your vision and make artistic choices that align with what you want to say.

Here are things that I like to avoid when kicking off a story:

  • Character credentials: you want your reader to know as much about the character as they need, but the first line isn’t a cocktail party: you don’t need to mention his or her name, eye color, height, build, and, or favorite flavor of chapstick.  These are things that your reader will learn through the course of the story.
  • Weather: unless you can put some spin on this, don’t start with a landscape and slowly pan across the hills as your protagonist appears in the frame.  There are more interesting things to write about than what the clouds look like.

In the spirit of honesty, I got tired of thinking of things that you shouldn’t do so I’m going to get to the more positive side of things.  In my totally unjustified and unwarranted opinion, what makes a fabulous first line?

  • It raises some questions.  Your first line should make grammatical sense, but you want to present a situation that makes the reader want to keep reading.  If your first line satisfies the reader, then you’ve already lost them.  Make them wonder why.
  • It throws you right into the situation.  Throw your reader into the fray and make them figure it out.  Don’t begin at the start line: cheat a little bit and start a few miles in.  It will make your writing seem more natural and I’ve found it helps me avoid a data dump.
  • It establishes the narrator’s voice.  Your first line is your narrator’s first impression, so use your first line to define the narrator and his or her character.  Is your protagonist an optimist or a pessimist, kind or vindictive?  Set the tone right from the beginning by saying something that functions as your narrator’s signature.
  • Gives as much information as possible…without your reader realizing it.  Just like you want to establish your narrator and his or her voice, you want to give the reader as much information as possible through diction and syntax.  Pack as much information as you can into a single sentence: no pressure though.

To wrap this sucker up, I’ll share some of my favorite first lines.  I loved picking these out because it was a reason to go through all my books and reminisce on all the wonderful times I spent with my favorite literary friends.

  • “First the colors.  Then the humans.  Thats usually how I see things.  Or at least, how I try.” -Marcus Zusak, The Book Thief
  • “They called him Moishe the Beadle, as if his entire life he had never had a surname.” -Elie Wiesel, Night
  • “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” -Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar.  I talked about this line in my Mystery Blogger Award post, so go check it out and read why I love this line so much.
  • “I have never been what you’d call a crying man.” -Stephen King, 11/22/63
  • “It’s so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself.” -Ned Vizzini, It’s Kind of a Funny Story
  • “When they write my obituary.  Tomorrow.  Or the next day.  It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY N APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT.” -Nicole Krauss, The History of Love
  • “When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.” -Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl

What do you think makes a stellar first line?  Let me know in the comments; I love to know what y’all think 🙂 And don’t forget to head over to my Twitter, Pinterest, Goodreads, and Wattpad to show some social media love <3

XO, Annie

8 thoughts on “Annie Talks First Lines

  1. Oh wow, this is a really relatable post since I just started my novel (though for the second time)! You make a lot of really good points, and I love that you gave examples! As I read each one, I realized that I had questions about all of them…I love the first like of The Book Thief!

    I’ll definitely keep this post in mind for when I’m revising and need to work on creating a fantastic first line! 🙂

  2. I judge books by their first line all the time. They’re so important. They’re usually the reason why I’ll buy a book. The Book Thief’s first line is awesome–the whole novel is amazing!
    I recently wrote a post about my favourite first lines, and I also had so much fun going through my books to find my top ones. If you’re interested:

    Glad I discovered your blog! 🙂