Friday, April 4, 2014

The Beginning

"Realistically, that first line is all you have." So says multi-published author of inspirational romantic suspense, Camy Tang. With our books, we have maybe five seconds to catch the reader’s interest. We have no more than that to excite an agent or editor such as 4RV Publishing.

First lines count more than anything.

When you begin your story and edit it to prepare for submission, this question should be answered first.
Where do you start?

Writers have five possibilities for first lines.

1.     Dialogue

2.     Action

3.     Exposition

4.     Description

5.     Thoughts
Dialogue beginning: “This place is awful,” Victoria said, spewing all the venom that a fifteen-year-old could muster.” Victoria and the Ghost by Janet K. Brown

As you may guess, this is one of my favorite type first lines.

Action first lines: “The station wagon jolted over a rough place in the blacktop, and I opened my eyes and sat up.” The Hills of Homicide”  by Louis L’Amour
Action starts are more rare. I searched many books before I found one. No surprise that it came from someone like Louis L'Amour.

Starting a story with exposition: “On June-eleventh, ten days after my sixteenth birthday, my life as I knew  it came to an end.” Live On Hold by Beverly Stowe McClure
Beginning with exposition is found a lot, but it's tricky to make it fresh and captivating. McClure does a good job here catching the reader's attention. We want to know more.

 Description first lines: “The manger was empty.” Angels Everywhere by Debbie Macomber.
A reader can get lost in description, but here, Macomber uses four words of description to snare the reader. 
Beginning with thoughts: “Somewhere in her heart, Danielle Montgomery knew this was wrong, and her guilt had a face, Momma’s face.”  No One heard her Scream by Jordan Dane

Internal thought is used effectively here by Dane to get to know the protagonist and identify part of her problem.
If you catch the reader's attention with the first line, chances are they'll read a bit farther. Concentrate and construct the first several paragraphs carefully.


Elements to consider for the first page.

1.     Do you show if the story is humorous? Dark? Suspenseful? Inspirational?

2.     Have you put the reader into the protagonist’s mind?

3.     Have you grounded us on where this story is taking place?

4.     Have you identified the problem to be solved?


A journalist’s guideline works also for fiction. After reading the first chapter, do you know why, when, where, who, and how? The sooner the reader relates to the protagonist and lives in his or her world, the best chance the author has that the book will not be laid aside in favor of another.

North Texas Romance Writers of America does an annual contest for first lines. Winners have been announced for 2014, but here's the link to the rules in case you'd like to enter in a few months when the contest cranks up again.

Hartline Literary Agency posts a good blog on first lines. Here's the link for it:

A blog that I follow has this good article on writing that first page. Here's that link:


A parting thought:

    Does the rest of your novel keep the promise you made to the reader on the first page? Was that really what the story was about? Do you answer the question posed in the beginning.


  1. I especially like your parting thought, Janet. Everyone places so much importance on that first line, that first page, even the first chapter or two--and they are so right. You have to hook the reader in the very beginning. When I am editing, I frequently notice the writer has followed this sage advice, but forgotten to "keep the promise." Once the story gets past that first page or first couple of chapters, the story fails. If the author can write a first line like that, why can't he write a whole story like that?

    One of my favorite firsts:

    "Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

    Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White

    I enjoyed this blog post.

    1. I so agree, Renee. Oh, yes, that first line is a keeper.

  2. Great article, Janet. Yep, grab the reader from the first line and never let go. That's not always easy to do. Thanks for the links and for mentioning Life on Hold :).

  3. You're sure welcome, Beverly. I loved that book.