First Lines OR Love at First Sight

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

(A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle)

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

(Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White)

Some people call them “hooks”—that all important first line of a book. Imagine a fishing hook with a big, fat juicy worm on the end wriggling like a delicacy. That worm is much more appetizing to a fish swimming by than the metal hook will ever be dangling all by itself–and so will a juicy first line of a book to potential readers cruising the shelves in a bookstore or library.

A fishing rod and worms is how I describe the creation of story hooks when I do my Creative Diary writing workshop with kids. You want to throw that great, delicious hook out there, capture your reader, and then reel them in. As a writer or a librarian or a teacher trying to grab a child with a book, we want our potential reader to get intrigued, to *Get Hooked* and KEEP READING.

So just how important IS that opening first line or first page for Readers and how important are first lines for Writers?

Let’s go to our panel of experts:

Readers First!

Aubri, 15-years-old: “The cover of a book definitely draws me in first, but the first line makes or breaks it. I have to be intrigued, but I also like funny stories like the Junie B. Jones books that start out really funny and scary books where a character might be in prison and something is going to happen to them.”

Shelby, 12-years-old: “A first line makes me want to keep reading. If it’s boring, I’ll stop. I will probably read the whole first page, but unless I like it, I’ll stop reading the book. When I’m browsing the bookshelves, I read the synopsis on the jacket, too. And the Author stuff on the back.”

Milyssa, 16-years-old: “I like good first lines, but it’s more than that. The whole first paragraph has to be great.”

Writers Next! (Clicking on the author’s name will direct you to their website)

VIVIAN VANDE VELDE

“The first line needs to set the stage, giving us a glimpse into when and where the story takes place so we can immediately begin to picture things. Optimally, it should give us a meaningful glimpse at the main character–saying, thinking, doing something relevant to the story. (That is, I don’t think highly of stories that try to grab you with a cheap falsehood, as in: Terrified, Melanie screamed, convinced she was going to die. Of course, no one had ever died from seeing a mouse, but it COULD happen…) It should set the tone, giving us the voice of the character if it’s in 1st person.

And, if possible, hint at the conflict which will be at the heart of the story.

The story where I think I accomplished this most successfully is GHOST OF A HANGED MAN, which starts: “Pa said we were too young to go to the hanging.”

GREG LEITICH SMITH

“The voice has to grab you and make you want to continue and there should be some follow-through in the rest of the novel about the thing(s) that arose in the first line.

In NINJAS, I used, “I knew I was in trouble when I heard the cello,” which lets us know the protag is (a) in trouble and (b) is in some strange situation wherein that trouble is announced via a cello. And the “trouble” itself forms the basis for the main conflict.”

BARBARA O’CONNOR

“First lines set the tone for the story (funny, dramatic, etc). First lines are the front door of the story and should say “come on in”.

My new favorite first line is from The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester coming out the end of August: “Owen Jester tiptoed across the gleaming linoleum floor and slipped the frog into the soup.”

ANDREA BEATY

“I have a very simple requirement for Line #1. It has to make the reader want to read Line #2!

My favorite first line is from my book, Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies.”

“Meanwhile, in space . . .”

ALEX FLINN

I think the first line should give the reader a certain amount of information but also leave the reader with questions.

Nothing to Lose: “I should never have come back to Miami.”

The information in this short line is: The Main Character is in Miami. He left Miami. Now, he’s back. He’s regretting it.

The Questions raised: Why did he leave? Why did he come back? Why does he regret it?

Enough to keep the reader reading on.

UMA KRISHNASWAMI

“I never know my first line until I’m sure of the last. Several first lines often fall off.

The first line of my new middle grade The Grand Plan to Fix Everything (Atheneum, June 2011) has stayed almost intact from about the 3rd draft.”

“Dolly Singh’s fabulous face floats across the screen of the TV in the family room.”

HEATHER VOGEL FREDERICK

“The former journalist in me always thinks of first lines as the “lead” to a story. When I was writing for newspapers and magazines, I always found that once I got the lead right, the rest of the article flowed from there. It’s like building a house on a solid foundation.

My goal for the first line is to reach out and grab the reader by the lapels and pull them into the story.”

Favorite first line? Still my first-born, from The Voyage of Patience Goodspeed:

“‘Absolutely, positively not!’ roared my father in a voice meant to be heard through the teeth of a Cape Horn gale.”

BARBARA BROOKS WALLACE

“Tell him, Muddle! Tell him we’re not mice!”

The first sentence of The Barrel in the Basement is a first sentence that HAS to be followed by the second – which is even better!

“Pudding gazed with horror at the huge yellow cat who lay on his side daintily probing the mouth of the jar with his paw.”

LAURIE CALKHOVEN

“I often go back and change my opening after I’ve written the end. In Daniel at the Siege of Boston, 1776, my main character thinks in the end that the siege was like one long staring match between the British and the Patriots. I wasn’t happy with my opening, so I went back and decided to open with a staring match:

“I stared into Josiah Henshaw’s red brown eyes and vowed not to blink.”

“I wanted to open with action, and this sets the tone for the rest of the book.”

M. J. AUCH

“Here’s my favorite from a short story called “Witch’s Son”.”

“When Abigail Brewster brought her son, Hugh, back from the dead the first time, he looked all fragile and wispy, like morning mist on the village commons.”

A big thank you to all of our reader and writer experts on the subject of First Lines and Hooks!

Now Go forth! Find a Great Hook Today or Write a Great Hook  – and Fall In Love at First Sight!

Kimberley Griffiths Little’s been juggling book launch parties for The Healing Spell (Scholastic) with her right hand, twirling a handful of new characters with her left while typing her next book for Scholastic with her toes. Throw in a pot of Louisiana gumbo, too many pecan pralines, fishing for the perfect worm . . .and you have a typical day in the life of a writer on deadline.

13 Responses to First Lines OR Love at First Sight

  1. This is great! :-DDD I love the list ! I think you’re doing a great job juggling everything as well!

  2. I’m glad this post has been inspiring and helpful to y’all! It’s making me set my own bar higher, too.

    And Dr. Fred – I completely meant to add non-fiction titles (your first lines are fabulous! And the books are terrific, too, so everyone run out and get Dr. Fred’s books!) but in my hurry-up deadline for the blog post and a few mind warps this week, I did not get any added. Thanks for reminding me because this MG blog is for fiction AND non-fiction ALL things middle-grade – and I’m very glad you joined the conversation!

  3. Thank you for this fine collection of first-lines, Kimberley. It made me go back and revisit the first line in my work-in-progress. These opening lines set the bar quite high!

  4. What a great post. I am REALLY into fist lines. In fact, I include them in every one of my reviews on my blog.

  5. When we were discussing this on-line, I was so in awe of the contributions of others that I didn’t notice the complete absence of nonfiction. I hope you don’t mind my adding a bit about that very important genre.

    As a self-styled “teller of true tales,” I also have to pay attention to first lines. This is true not only for the opening chapter but for every chapter, especially when the book is a collection of true stories that support a common theme.

    It’s hard to choose a favorite, so I will settle for the one that first got me noticed on a broader scale, Catastrophe! Great Engineering Failure — and Success. Its prologue, entitled “Obeying Murphy’s Law,” sets the tone with this: “When you are in a hurry and all the traffic lights are red…when soup spills on your best clothes…when your pencil point breaks in the middle of a test…that’s what most people call Murphy’s Law: “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.” (The ellipses are part of the text.)

    I then tell the story of the real Murphy and the incident that made his “law” so famous, leading up to this closing for the prologue: “That’s what Murphy’s Law really means: If you want things to go right, pay attention to everything that can go wrong. Now that’s a law worth obeying!”

    One other point about my style: In looking through my books, I discovered that I more commonly use a two sentence “lead.” Sticking with Catastrophe and moving on to the first chapter called “Dance of Death,” I open with: “In July 1980, people gasped in wonder as they entered the spectacular lobby of the newly opened Kansas City, Missouri Hyatt Regency Hotel. A year later, they gasped in horror.”

    So my point is this: nonfiction stories can be at least as compelling as fictional ones, and we writers of nonfiction need to be equally aware of the need for a strong opening, be it one sentence or two or three.

  6. Thanks Kimberly!

    First lines!!!! They’re my favorite. If a novel has a weak or predictable first line I have very low expectations for the rest of the book.

    Nancy Pearl has an excellent collection of wonderful first lines in her fine collection of the best of young people’s books- Book Crush. Even better check out how E. B. White arrived at his famous “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” It wasn’t in the first… or second or third draft. Everything is illuminated in The Annotated Charlotte’s Web. It’s a must for children’s writers and everybody who loves beautifully, intentionally written children’s books.

  7. fantastic post! thank you so much for sharing this. first lines are so vital – but they certainly are just about the hardest part to write!

  8. That first line is crucial, and getting it just right requires a great deal of thought, inspiration, and revision.

  9. These are terrific examples! Thanks for sharing. I especially like the input from the young readers. It’s so important to know their opinions since they’re the targeted audience.

  10. Those are great examples! Thanks :)

  11. Oh, my gosh–Kimberly, great article. The authors you’ve quoted have done their job because I am hooked. I especially love “Pa said we were too young to go to a hanging.” That line is LADEN with story.

  12. Marileta Robinson

    Inspiring examples! Thanks! And now I want to go read all those books.

  13. Karen B. Schwartz

    As a reader, I HAVE to have a good first line to keep going. As a writer, boy is that tough to do! I must rewrite that opening 10 times!