Something I’ve learned in my writing journey that may help other beginning writers is the art and craft of first lines. The first paragraph is one of the most important parts of a book. I mean, how many of you, when in a book store, pick up a book that looks interesting and read the first few lines? And how many of you put the book back if that first paragraph doesn’t capture your attention? I know I do. Here are three things that help draw a reader in by the first few lines, and then I’ll show some examples.
If the book is well written, we’re more likely to buy it. And I’m not talking about grammar and spelling. A book doesn’t have to have perfect grammar and spelling if it’s written in the character’s voice. I’m talking about art. Originality. When the prose draws you in and carries you into the life and heart of the story so you don’t even realize you’re reading it.
Besides being well written, the first line should also make you connect with the character on an emotional level. They should make you care about his dreams and fears and goals. Jeff Gerke, founder of Marcher Lord Press, says in his book First 50 Pages: “One of the main ways to engage your reader is to make him bond with your main character.”
Another important component in your fist paragraph is, it should raise some questions in the reader’s mind that makes them want to read on in order to find the answers.
Okay. So here’s the first paragraph of a book I recently bought- a book I’ve never heard of, by an author I know nothing about. The first lines sucked me in by making me care about the lead and raising questions in my mind.
It only takes a day and a half for the dreams to find me again. I wake just before dawn sweating and shaking, the sheets all tangled around my legs. I can’t get back to sleep. If I close my eyes, I can see the flames and hear the voices. I can’t understand most of the words, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the anger that’s important. Underneath the clamor, I hear pleading. I see their blood. I taste my own. And the pre-dawn haze in the bedroom becomes the smoke.
-my hands came away red by Lisa McKay
The author left me asking questions after only the first sentence- What dreams? And in order to find those answers, I bought the book and kept reading.
Movies vs. Books
I was comparing first lines in narrated movies with their bestselling books, and oddly enough, most of the movies did a better job capturing my attention with just the narration. Maybe because they had a shorter time to squeeze it in? They alway say, write your book like you were writing a movie. (In other words, “show, don’t tell” and leave the ‘bulky’ parts out.) When I work on my first lines, I try to copy movies. I’m not sure if that’s the best approach, but it works for me.
Just for fun, here are some examples of my favorite first lines of bestselling books and the first lines of the movies based on those books. I’m not saying these are my favorite books/movies, by the way. They just have good beginnings.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
The first lines from the book:
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Good first paragraph… very poetic. And I really do like it. But it tells me nothing about the character. I could read that paragraph and put the book down, never wondering what happened in the story.
There’s two things everybody got to find out for theyselves: they got to find out about love, and they got to find out about living. Now, love is like the sea. It’s a moving thing. And it’s different on every shore. And living… well, I just come back from burying the dead.
The movie’s first line definitely made me want to watch more, and even made me want to pick up the book. By the first few lines you know the tone. You know it’s going to be a romance. It doesn’t talk about the character until the last sentence, but it’s told in the character’s voice, which actually does say a lot about her. And the last line in the paragraph raises the question, Who did she just bury?
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (Don’t judge!)
I’d never given much thought to how I would die- though I’d had reason enough in the last few months- but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.
I stared without breathing across the long room, into the dark eyes of the hunter, and he looked pleasantly back at me.
Surely it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I loved. Noble, even. That ought to count for something.
I’d never given much thought to how I would die…. But dying in the place of someone I love seems like a good way to go.
Okay… both opening lines are almost identical, except that the book has a description of her surroundings. The movie obviously doesn’t need that, since it’s a movie and all…. This is a good example of first lines, though. In both cases, the narrator/author raises the questions: why is she dying, and who is she dying for? The first paragraph in the book made me buy it before it was even a bestseller.
Unfortunately, the rest of the book couldn’t hold my attention as well as the first few pages….
Precious (or PUSH) by Sapphire
I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver. That was in 1983. I was out of school for a year. This gonna be my second baby. My daughter got Down Sinder. She’s retarded. I had got left back in the second grade too, when I was seven, ’cause I couldn’t read (and I still peed on myself). I should be in the eleventh grade, getting ready to go into twelf’ grade so I can gone ‘n graduate. But I’m not. I’m in the ninfe grade.
Honestly… this first line made me want to put the book down. It sounds like a depressing memoir, which isn’t bad if it was a real memoir. (Or is it? I don’t know a lot about memoirs…) But this is fiction we’re talking about.
My name is Clareece “Precious” Jones. I wish I had a light-skinned boyfriend with real nice hair. And I wanna be on the cover of a magazine. But first I wanna be in one of them BET videos. Momma said I can’t dance. Plus, she said who wants to see my big ass dancing, anyhow?
The movie’s first lines show more of the lead’s character in just a few short sentences. We know what she wants, what her dreams are, and what holds her back. We already dislike her mom. We know what she wants to happen to her. And then we ask the question, will it happen?
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
I’m only going to use the book’s example, since the movie’s not narrated.
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
We already know she has a sisters she cares dearly for. And what is the reaping? No wonder this book is such a big hit.
When writing a book, you should start out with the lead’s dreams/fears/emotions in the first page. Backstory can come later. And make sure you’re showing the story, not telling it.
Finally… I think James Cameron did a great job when he wrote the first line of Avatar. Along with intriguing picture, the movie started out with a gripping hook.
When I was lying there in the VA hospital, with a big hole blown through the middle of my life, I started having these dreams of flying.
Sooner or later though, you always have to wake up…
And… that’s my spiel on first lines. Here’s a good website/blog that goes more in depth on the first paragraph/first page.
What about you? Do you have any favorite first lines in movies or books? Have you ever bought a book simply because the first paragraph hooked you?