Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The First Line: Part One

The first line of fiction or nonfiction is important for a variety of reasons. But it must, above all, capture the reader's attention.

In Sol Stein's book, Stein on Writing, he explores this concept through a mixture of examples, his experiences as an editor, and his teaching methods.

Stein says, "It is astonishing how much the first words of a novel or story affect editors, reviewers, and readers. They are the trigger of curiosity, what writers have long called the "narrative hook." (Stein, pg. 17)

Let's take a closer look at the narrative hook.

Take a look at these sentences, examples that Stein himself uses to teach us the importance of the first line.

Yank Lucas fell asleep late one night and left the gas burning on the kitchen range. (John O'Hara, The Instrument).

Are you immediately intrigued by this sentence? Do you want to know what's going to happen next? Then the author has done his job.

Let's look at the next one.

"What's the matter?" she asked. (James Baldwin, "Going to Meet the Man")

We're immediately drawn into a situation where there's conflict and tension.

And here's an opening line from one of Stein's students.

I wanted to strangle mother but I'd have to touch her to do it.

Wow. Look at the wealth of information in that one line. Are you intrigued? Do you want to know more? Again, another successful opening line.

Here are two questions that Stein suggests you ask yourself about your opening sentence:

"1) Does it convey an interesting personality or an action that we want to know more about?

2) Can you make your first sentence more intriguing by introducing something unusual, something shocking perhaps, or something that will surprise the reader?" (Stein, p. 20)

Look at the first sentence of your work. Does it grab your attention? If it doesn't, go back and think about revising it until it does.

Tomorrow, I'll dig deeper into the importance of the first line and the first paragraph and explain a few other ways to achieve an intriguing opening.


  1. Anonymous10:19 AM

    Hi Melissa,
    Thanks for the writing tips for good beginnings. I am teaching a unit on intros and leads to my seniors and was wondering if I could plagiarize some of your post? Think I'd like the Stein book. Love reading your blog BTW!


  2. Maria - Absolutely! Good to hear from you. :)

  3. Great post, Melissa. Beginnings are so important. I admit to struggling with it at times. I had what I felt was a good opening, but it essentially wasn't the best place to start the novel. At the suggestion of an agent I'd queried, I switched things around and the first line/paragraph suffered. I thought it was good enough and sent it back. No word yet, but I recently improved that first paragraph tremendously. Live and learn. A great first line can work wonders.

    I love the examples you provided!

  4. Great post - thanks!!

  5. I really like this post. I think the first line is so vital and so hard to get just right.

  6. It's Stein's third example that does it for me...the first two not so much.

    And that's cool to me, because the reading experience is so subjective.

  7. Good stuff! Thanks :)

  8. Michelle6:54 PM

    I like the line about strangling his mother! LOL.

  9. I loved this post, Melissa. The opening narrative hook of a novel certainly affects how I feel entering into a story.

  10. BTW, I LOVE LOVE LOVE your St. Bernard dogs (I know one isn't a full St. Bernard, but who cares?) The photos are adorable and I immediately felt myself melting. As you might know, I have a Newfoundland, so I adore big dogs! :)

  11. Oooh - that's so cool. Thanks for posting it :-) I'll go back and look at my opening line again.

  12. Excellent post, Melissa.

    And don't forget the first lines of each chapter and scene break, too. They, too, should also have a hook to carry the reader into the next bit of the story.

  13. Great post, Melissa. I especially liked the two suggestions you gave us from Stein. I'm sure they'll help!

  14. Beginnings are paramount to getting an agent/editor's attention. Thanks for sharing Stein's examples with us. I'm looking forward to reading your future posts regarding this resource.

  15. Excellent post! I sweat blood over my first line.

    Here is my standard one:

    Daniel Craig stood there naked.

    Doesn't matter the genre, I think that one works, what do you think?


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