Wednesday, June 4, 2014

How to Make Your First Line POP!

I've known Jessica Bell for years, and I'm lucky to have met her in person in December. She's written a fab series of books (Writing in a Nutshell) to help writers. Read about her newest writer's resource, and find out about Jessica's generous offer






How to Make Your First Line POP!
by Jessica Bell

There’s nothing more important than starting your story right. So don’t forfeit the chance to make sure the first line of your novel really cries for readers’ attention.

There are a few points you might like to consider to make your first line the best it can possibly be. I believe the ideal first line does the following:

1. Poses a question. By this, I do not mean your first sentence should literally be a question; I mean it should introduce a conflict that has the potential to spark readers’ interest.

2. Hints at genre.

3. Is not too long. Punchy works best. Think about those infamous six-word stories: For sale: baby shoes, never worn. They embody so much complexity in so few words, don’t they? Aim for something similarly concise and complex. Think of your first sentence as a complete slice of life. It should conjure vivid imagery and intrigue.

4. Is noticeably related to the plot of your story. Even if a reader doesn’t immediately recognize it as such, the connection will dawn on them further into the book.

Before I give you an example of a good first line, let me show you a weak one:

My name is Janet and I don’t want to see my therapist.

Okay, let’s break this down.

Does it pose a question? Erm … yes, but not a very intriguing one. Something needs to be added for the reader to really want to know why Janet doesn’t want to see her therapist. At the moment, I’m not really interested in why because it hasn’t introduced any conflict.

Does it hint at genre? Possibly. Sounds like Women’s Fiction or Chick Lit to me. But honestly, it could be anything. If the next sentence reveals she’s a Cyborg with an identity crisis, then I’d be pretty sure it’s Science Fiction. But why should I wait until the second line?

Is it too long? Nope. At least it’s got that going for it.

Is it heavily related to the plot? I wouldn’t know. All I know is that the narrator’s name is Janet and she is complaining. Not a very compelling character trait to start off with, in my opinion.

Now that we’ve got the weak example out of the way, let’s move on to the strong example.

The deathcare therapists say, “Die happy, live happier.”

Does this pose a question? Yes! Why do people need “deathcare therapy?” It’s obviously not about offering support for the terminally ill, because why would it reference the afterlife? And it’s obviously not something only one therapist said, because it’s written in present tense to express a general truth. So it must be some sort of slogan. Perhaps it’s something that is preached through the media? Is it spiritual in nature? Or do people really get a second chance at life after they die? So many questions. I’m intrigued!

Does it hint at genre? I’d say so. I get a sense of Speculative Fiction or Psychological Thriller. Big change from my previous genre assumption.

Is it too long? No. I think this is a great length. It’s punchy, to the point, and full of intrigue.

Is it heavily related to the plot? I’d assume so. Why offer something so rich with implication if it has nothing to do with the story? From this first line, I’m assuming that this story is about life, death, and finding happiness. And perhaps within a moderately dystopian world.

Now it’s your turn. What’s your first line? Can you make it better?

Checklist:
1. Does your first line pose a question?
2. Does it hint at genre?
3. Is it short and punchy?
4. Is it related to the plot of your story?

Want more advice on how to self-edit your manuscript? Then you might be interested in Jessica’s new release, Polish Your Fiction: A Quick & Easy Self-Editing Guide.


Bio:
Jessica Bell, a thirty-something Australian-native contemporary fiction author, poet and singer/songwriter/ guitarist, is the Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal and the director of the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek island of Ithaca. She makes a living as a writer/editor for English Language Teaching Publishers worldwide, such as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, MacMillan Education, Education First and Cengage Learning.

Connect with Jessica online:


Writers, share your FIRST LINE 
in the comments section 
and Jessica will give you FEEDBACK
Leave a comment by Friday at midnight, June 6th EST.

100 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for having me today, Theresa! :)

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  2. This is such great advice! I went to the NESCBWI conference last month, and many of the agent sessions I went to stressed the importance of a good first line. Mandy Hubbard in particular emphasized how crucial it is to have a "question" in your opening line/paragraph. Gotta hook the reader early on! Thank you both!

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  3. Thanks Julie! Well that's fabulous that my advice in in line with such a brilliant agent like Mandy! :-)

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  4. *waves like a crazy person* Heyyy Jessica!!

    Here's my first line (*ducks rotten tomatoes*):

    Sometimes I hate the beauty around me.

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    1. Hi Christopher! :-)

      Okay. I like that this poses a question. But I think the question is way too broad. It’s simply, “Why?” I think you can get a little more “pop” into this. What kind of beauty does the narrator hate? Mother nature beauty? Too many beautiful women? The beauty of environment? Is the narrator simply depressed and overreacting, or being a stick in the mud? Maybe think about an action that portrays the hate? Such as the beautiful scenery (if that’s what it is) making the narrator want to puke. Okay, I know that’s lame, but do you know what I’m getting at?

      Similarly, I’m not really getting any impression about the genre here.

      Let’s break it down:

      Sometimes (why sometimes? And on what kind of occasion would the narrator feel like this? Try and incorporate that too.)

      I hate (would be great to incorporate an action that shows the hate)

      the beauty (what beauty? Give us something more specific. Maybe you have in the second line. If so, can you try and use that?)

      around me (literally? Or as in general life? Or as in environment? Or as in feeling?)

      I’m going to make a line up to show you what I mean. This most likely has NOTHING to do with your book, but here goes:

      “Whenever I’m depressed, romantic gestures make me want to run a cheese grater over my face.”

      Hope this helps!

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    2. Thank you so much for your insight. Those are great considerations. And difficult, generally speaking, to fold into one line.

      For instance, here's my entire first paragraph:

      Sometimes I hate the beauty around me. I despise that Mom can no longer see a beautiful sunset, or wear the gorgeous designer gowns she loved so much. But perhaps everything in this world is more vibrant because our time here is so limited. Like if we lived for ever, we’d take it for granted.

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    3. Oooh! I think your second line is a fabulous first line. :)

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    4. *beams* :D Thank you. Perhaps I'll move it up.

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    5. I would say just get rid of the first line as your second line pretty much sums up what your first line is hinting at.

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  5. *waves to Jessica* What bodacious advice. I'm chuffed to see you here today. *waves to T* Since I read this post, I'm unsure about my first line. I hope it poses a question. But now.... Here it is:

    Anna opened the barn door. Two scents―sweet hay and horse―surrounded her.

    Writing is so hard! (I love that six-word story. I use it in homeschool making them write one in six words. Fun!

    Thanks Jessica and T for such an inspiring post. Popping over to get this newest book. I have an entire collection now, Jessica. :-)

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    1. Hi Robyn! Thanks for sharing! :-) Technically, your first line is: "Anna opened the barn door."

      But let's ignore that. :) Horse story. Excellent. I've pretty much got an idea of genre, but there isn't a question posed. Care to share what comes next? Maybe I can help you blend it in.

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    2. You could do: Two scents―sweet hay and horse―surrounded Anna as she opened the barn door.

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  6. Er, that's a smiley not a parenthesis. It does look like a parenthesis, though. (:

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  7. O-kay... My first comment, um ... vanished. Here goes again: Love your suggestions, Jess. In depth yet concise .... LOL (Had to say that...) Thanks to Theresa for hosting you!

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  8. Congrats, Jessica! Looks like you have another great book to add to your series of craft books.

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  9. The first line of my current manuscript hits everything but genre - He had her in his sights.

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    1. That's actually a really cool line in my opinion. To me it says that he is suspicious of her and watching carefully, or that he has been searching for her and has finally spotted her. We have questions: Why is he suspicious?/What has she done?Why is he searching? We have conflict: clearly there is going to be some sort of confrontation at some point.

      The only thing I'd suggest, if you wanted to get genre in there, is tweak it to have the woman standing near some sort of object which reflects sci-fi. It is sci-fi, right?

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  10. Fun! Here's one of mine.

    I’m not sure what wakes me first--the throbbing in my head, or the cold concrete against my cheek.

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  11. Some great advice and some great opening lines. Here's one of mine: The first thing I did was hide the knife.

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  12. What a fun idea! I'm tweeting this out...

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  13. Hey Jessica. Thanks so much. Yeah, I knew that technically my first line was her opening the barn door. Maybe that should me taken out? ;-) She's waiting on her best friend to arrive. They're going riding on a mountain. But basically, she's cleaning a stall and her brother comes in to tell her Claire (her best friend) has arrived. They haven't seen each other for a few months.

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    1. Hmm ... is there a conflict of any sort? What's your logline?

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  14. Great advice. I know my first lines all need a lot of help.

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  15. Great advice, and I'm loving these first lines! Here's mine:

    Waking up in a morgue was not my idea of Heaven.

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    1. That's a great line! Can I suggest you include something sensory to make the reader squirm a little? Maybe something like the suffocating darkness? Is she in a zip up bag? Running out of air?

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    2. Great idea! Thanks for the input=)

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  16. Great little checklist for an important opening.
    I'm loving some of the the first lines in the comments.

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    1. Thanks, Lynda! Yes, some great lines here.

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  17. These days it's important to make that first line POP, as that's maybe all an editor will read before dropping the ms into the WPB. Hopefully not, but emerging writers seem to be getting less chance to get their ms a fair reading. Once upon a time, authors could ramble a bit before getting into it, but many of those classics would not be accepted for publication today.

    Thanks for the checklist. I'll add it to my 'Things You Must Do To Get Published' file.

    Thanks Theresa. Thanks Jessica.

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  18. Great post! With all the contests I did on my blog with Terrie Wolf I read a lot of manuscripts and it really does make a difference on how you feel as you move on to the first paragraph.

    Here's my first line from my mg novel:
    I flung my gas mask over my shoulder and plopped down on a kitchen chair.

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  19. Oh, and why not? I'm feeling brave today. Here's the first line of my ms just received back from an editor for re-writes:

    Bosco’s cowboy boots clattered to the timber deck of his over-water villa, his home for the next few weeks.

    Hmm??? Go at it!

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    1. I really like the imagery in this, and the juxtaposition of a cowboy at a (seaside?) villa, (what is an 'over-water' villa?) but I do feel it is a little bit of a mouthful. Think we could make it more punchy? It's not easy, I know. :)

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    2. Thanks Jessica. No, it's not easy...:)

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  20. I love seeing writers sharing their first lines here. I think it's wonderful that Jessica agreed to do this.

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  21. Some good advice, thanks for sharing!! Do you only deal with first lines for novels? I'm working on a picture book, guess I'll throw my first line out there anyway.
    The first day of Kindergarten is intimidating for everyone, especially if you’re a clown.

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    1. Hi there! Sorry I missed this before!

      I really like this! I love that we're not quite sure if it's an adult clown talking about visiting a kindergarten, or whether it's a kid who thinks they're a clown. Nice!

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  22. Hi all! Because I live in Greece, there is a big difference in time zones. I think I am about 9 hours ahead, on average, of most US states. I've literally just got up and sat down at my desk. (Thursday morning.) I'll be back this afternoon to start giving feedback. Thanks for you patience, all! PS: LOVing your lines!!!

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  23. Hi Theresa and Jess .. you've certainly started something here .. and your thoughts on first lines are so right - it's essential to have that hook and drawing us on ...

    Jess - congratulations on your new book .. this is a great series ..

    Cheers Hilary

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  24. This is such great wisdom. As a reader, I have based my decision to buy/ not buy a book simply based on the first line.

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  25. Congrats to Jessica! All success.

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  26. First lines are everything! Sometimes I like to pick up different books in the bookstore, just to read first lines. It's amazing how quickly it can set the tone of the book.

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    1. So very true. Thanks for stopping by. :)

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  27. Like Stephanie, I always judge a book by it's first line. Well that and the synopsis.

    I bet folks will be thrilled with Jessica's insights--have enjoyed reading her blog over the years.

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  28. Amazing post and I'm going to consider all of this when I look at the first lines of my current manuscript.

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  29. Stopped back to see some of the first lines and the comments. I did a first line contest way back when I started blogging, and I had so many entries. I think I should do it again and have Jessica be one of the judges. Let me know if you're interested, Jessica. Summer's a great time for a contest on my blog.

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    1. I'd LOVE to! Drop me a line by email? jessica(dot)carmen(dot)bell(at)gmail(dot)com

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    2. Jessica, will do! Thanks.
      Theresa, want to join in as judge, too? I'll email you both.

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  30. A great guest post! I always go for short and intense.

    Here's the first line of the novel I'm currently querying: The dead man sat up.

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  31. I want to thank Jessica for agreeing to read first lines. I also want to thank everyone who read and commented, especially those of you who shared your first lines. They were so much to read and showed a lot of talent.

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  32. Thanks to Jessica for these great tips. A great first line is definitely an artform all by itself. It's all about getting the reader intrigued in a big way.

    Here's mine from Book 1 of my YA dystopian trilogy:

    "At first no one could explain how the strange boy came to be there in the middle of the street."

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    1. Nick, I like your beginning. Unfortunately, Jessica's time to check submissions had already passed. Good luck with you manuscripts!

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  33. What an awesome series, and you are so lucky to have met Jessica in person, Theresa. There are so many wonderful writers/bloggers I'd love to meet in person one day.

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    1. Miranda, I've been lucky to meet a few online writer friends in person.

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  34. Awesome. And if it can hint at the perspective and the MC's identity at the same time, you're a literary genius, eh?

    Such a great post. First lines are vitally important.

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    1. Crystal, I agree. We write our beginnings over and over again for that very reason.

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  35. What a great guide to a first sentence! It sounds like your friend has a gift with the craft.

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    1. Searching for the Story, yes, with all the submissions she reads, it's helped with her critical eye, I think.

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  36. Awesome list. Will definitely be checking out the book. :-D

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  37. Awesome post! All of these tips on how to make your first sentence pop are right on target. I always take special care with the first and last line of all of my stories. :)

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    1. Chris, I don't blame you. Those first and last lines need to stick with readers.

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  38. Great post, Jessica! Congratulations on your latest release.

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  39. Never underestimate the importance of a first line! Great advice Jessica.

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  40. Thank you, Jessica and Theresa, for this valuable information. First line, first meeting, first dialogue. So very important. Congratulations, Jessica, on your latest release.

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  41. This is surely a GREAT resource. All the nuts and bolts in one place to make our words shine!!

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  42. A story's opening is so important! Thank you for the concrete tips, Jessica! Theresa, thank you for bringing us this post!

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  43. I like this break down, I hadn't thought about how it should hint a plot and genre too.

    Here's mine

    I don't usually have a problem putting my make-up on.

    It's YA SF.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your first line. Unfortunately, Jessica's time period for reviewing these is over. You definitely piqued my curiosity. I guess Jessica would say it doesn't give a sense of time or place, which wouldn't be too hard to add.

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  44. Late to the part, but this sounds like a good book by Jessica.
    Thanks for visiting on the blitz, Theresa.

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    1. Joy, I was happy when you were chosen as a Blitz-ee.

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  45. I am just now finding this post- but it is certainly interesting. I like the list of things to think about for the first line. It is definitely important to grab the reader. I will have to keep these things in mind. Thanks for sharing Jessica and Theresa. :)
    ~Jess

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