What Makes a Great First Line?

By Michelle Griep

We the people, in order to form a more perfect union…yada, yada. You know the rest. At least you should since it’s a killer first line. Because I teach a high school creative writing class, my senses are heightened toward beginning sentences. You know, like when you buy a lime green Volkswagen and then suddenly notice lime green Volkswagens on every street and in each parking lot? Yeah. That.

I can honestly say from recent experience…there’s NOTHING worse than a first sentence turn-off.

Here are some horrendous examples. Before your undies bunch, innocence will be maintained. I’m making these up based on stinkers I’ve read, not using actual excerpts.

Once there was a girl.
Really? Of course there was a girl. Newsflash: girls have been around for centuries. Who cares?

Takeaway value: avoid stating the obvious.

The sky billowed with activated-charcoal colored clouds, matching the thick, heavy, depressed feeling that weighed like an anvil on Jane’s soul.
After I stopped wondering what the difference was between activated charcoal and regular charcoal, then I had to re-read the line. The second time through, I wondered which word I’d have used to describe how she felt, because thick, heavy, and depressed infer the same thing. The third time, a cartoon bubble popped up in my head and I saw an anvil land on Jane like a scene from Wile E. Coyote & the Roadrunner. I’m guessing that’s not a picture the writer intended to invoke.

Takeaway value: sprinkle in description like salt–too much makes it unpalatable.

Detective Simpkin stopped dead in his tracks, avoiding part of a severed body lying on the sidewalk.
Which part? A leg? A ribcage? And most importantly, was the head still attached? Okay, so the thoughts running through my head might be a bit more graphic than yours, but didn’t you stop and wonder what part of the body he saw? It’s always a bad idea to pull the reader out of the story for a long period of time. I won’t even mention the cliche, though I suppose that counts as mentioning it, eh?

Takeaway value: Don’t get rid of too much description, some is needed.

Now that we’ve looked at some humdingers (and if you’d like to see more, check out Bulwer-Lytton), there’s a single question that begs to be asked.

What makes a great first line?

Unfortunately, there’s not a magic formula I can impart. Different ingredients can mix up a winner. Here are some items to consider putting on your stunning first line shopping list.

A dash of the shock factor.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
What?! Clocks don’t strike thirteen. Yeah, makes me want to read on, and you can in George Orwell’s 1984.

A heaping of controversy. 
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
There’s a whole lot of feminists who would take issue with this. In fact, it kind of makes every man cringe on the inside just a little. And if you can’t name the book this winner comes from, you really ought to buy it here.

A box of questions.
“Call me Ishmael.”
Just the name implies so many emotions, that I’m immediately sucked in to finding out why someone would want to identify with that figure. And if you’re wondering, check out Moby Dick.

A serving of foreshadowing.
“A screaming comes across the sky.”
Yikes. That can’t be good. What the heck is it and do I need to duck? Find out in Gravity’s Rainbow.

A can of familiarity.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Trust me. Everyone thinks they come from an unhappy family and that their situation is unique. Every reader on the planet will relate to this line, taken from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

Those are just a few. You can read the top 100 first lines HERE.

First lines are important. It’s where you’ll make or break the deal with your readers. Don’t get all bent out of shape on your first draft of your manuscript, but when you think you’re ready to send it out, take the time BEFORE you send it to really spit shine those crucial first words.

After all, you don’t want to end up on the worst-in-history first line list, do you?

Michelle Griep’s been writing since she first discovered blank wall space and Crayolas…professionally, however, for the past 10 years. She resides in the frozen tundra of Minnesota, where she teaches history and writing classes for a local high school co-op. Her latest release, A HEART DECEIVED, is available by David C. Cook

You can find her at: www.writerofftheleash.blogspot.com,  www.michellegriep.com or on TwitterFacebook, or Pinterest