Casting a Spell With the First Line

I spend a ridiculous amount of time Googling the best first lines in books. I study each one in the hope that I will absorb something, anything, that will allow me to spit out some synthesis of my voice and their brilliance in my own first lines.

In the book, Wired for Story (the best book I’ve ever read on writing), Lisa Cron says, “What intoxicates us is the hint that not only is trouble brewing…it’s about to reach critical mass. This means that from the first sentence we need to catch sight of the breadcrumb trail that will lure us deeper into the thicket.” Amen, Sister.

But it has to be more than that. Stephen King says “With really good books, a powerful sense of voice is established in the first line.”

Boromir first line

Very easy to say. But how do you write the elusive, perfect first line? First of all, become familiar with the few foundations commonly used in first lines:

  • Shock value/the unexpected: “The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.”—Ugliesby Scott Westerfeld
  • Action: “My father took one hundred and thirty two minutes to die. I counted.”—On Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
  • Prediction: “Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent into murder with a bus ride.”—What Came Before He Shot Her by Elizabeth George.
  • Intriguing observation: “They say that just before you die your whole life flashes before your eyes, but that’s not how it happened for me.”—Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver.

After that, read lots of great first lines. Lists of them are all over the internet. It gets the creative neurons fired up and itching to write something spectacular.

Then write.

For me, it goes something like this:

  • Decide what effect I’m going for and which foundation I’m going to use.
  • With the foundation in mind, I think of situations that my character might be in. For example, if I decide to try something unexpected and I know the book opens with the main character in a car with her mother, who’s a bit ditzy, I might come up with something like My mom popped her gum with staccato machine gun precision then nodded toward my hand. I held it out, and she spit the juicy, pink blob into it with a grateful look.
  • If I think it has potential, I play around with it.
  • I do this numerous times, experimenting with other lines and foundations.
  • Then I put them all away for a while.
  • After a break, I look at the first lines again. Some of them make me cringe. (Did I actually think that was funny?) Others make me smile. (Hmm, I think I might be onto something.)

It takes a little planning and a lot of staring into space while your brain scrolls through endless possibilities. You’ll write hundreds of words and delete most of them. If you get discouraged, remember that even Stephen King has a difficult time with first lines: “I’ll try to write a paragraph. An opening paragraph. And over a period of weeks and months and even years, I’ll word and reword it until I’m happy with what I’ve got.”

Hang in there. With some time, imagination, and effort, you can write a first line that will cast a spell over the reader and get them eager to set off on the breadcrumb trail.

DawneWDawne Webber writes contemporary YA fiction and is represented by Steven Chudney of The Chudney Agency. She’s the PAL Coordinator for SCBWI-MI and contributor to the SCBWI-MI blog. She lives in Michigan with her husband five children. They keep her sane amid the insanity of writing.

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