Monday, February 21, 2011

Those Gimmicky First Lines: Ax 'em!

Last week I said I delete a first line if I don't think it sets the tone for my book, and I promised to discuss the other reasons I delete first lines. The gimmicky line definitely gets the ax in my stories. What's a gimmicky line? It's something that catches the eye, shocks with its intensity, promises something that the author fails to deliver in the following paragraph or the rest of the book. 

Here's an example:

Marge stood at the edge of the canyon, ready to end her life on the count of three. Last year she'd had nothing but wonderful adventures ahead of her--glamorous parties, trips to any place in the world. Her mom and she lived together then, and her mom didn't approve of that kind of lifestyle. She always shook her head when Marge came down the stairs dressed for an evening out or a trip to Paris. What did her dowdy mother know? Nothing. Neither did her dad. He never did much except read the sports pages.

Huh? Just look at the poor reader who thought she was getting into something really exciting. She was promised this count of three, a girl hurling herself off the cliff to sure death, and then suddenly she's back to a year before, discussing Mom and Dad. Maybe this backstory can come later, but not now, not on this first page. On the first page the writer has to maintain the intensity she's established with that opening line.

It took a while for me to decide what was gimmicky rather than intense, interesting and fresh. So here's what I came up with to test the openings I write.  I ask myself these questions:

1) What does that line do to start developing the character?

2) What does it do to show the reader something about the narrator?

3) How about the setting? Does it take the reader where my story will happen?

4)  Does it help to establish the tone of my story?

5) And, of course, does the paragraph that follows sustain my first line? How about the rest of the page? The chapter?

One line can't do all of these things, but I think it should do at least one and do it well. Note that the categories are for discussion and convenience and not always clear-cut, especially when the writer is skilled and can pack a lot into a few words. One thing that I really like to accomplish is to reveal any of these four story elements and jolt the reader at the same time with the unexpected, the tantalizing, the bizarre. 

Okay, so I want something that will keep eyes on my writing, that will get the reader to move on to my first paragraph (where, of course, I still must shine as a writer), and then to the bottom of that first page where I'll make them turn to page two with a brilliant "what's next" sentence. So, you see what I'm saying? The first line is very important, but you can't hang everything on it even when it's the most fabulous first line ever written.

Here are a few first lines I admire. I've tried to separate them out according to the categories I use--again for discussion and convenience. And you'll notice I don't stick with YA and MG; I don't stick with the most recent books either.


"The first time I saw him he couldn't have been more than sixteen years old a little ferret of a kid, sharp and quick." Schulberg, What Makes Sammy Run?

"The first thing I did was steal a body." Lester,  Bedeviled 

"I planned my death carefully; unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another despite my feeble attempts to control it." Atwood, Lady Oracle


"If I'd blinked, I would have missed it." Henry, Learning to Swim

"She saw a beach made of ice, and she felt her heart breaking." Lo, Huntress


"When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reached out to touch the child sleeping beside him." McCarthy,  The Road

"On rainy days, we don't have to work in the woods, gathering water until our backs ache and our fingers tremble around out spoons." Bachorz, Drought

"Ten minutes before it happened, four-year-old Laurie Kenyon was sitting cross-legged on the floor of the den rearranging the furniture in her dollhouse." Clark, All Around the Town


  1. For one of my manuscripts, I came up with a first line that my crit partners loved. The only problem was that the line made my MC's situation appear much worse than it was. It was in the first person and my MC was being dramatic. That's fine but after that line he had to sort of go back a step and tell you what happened a minute before. That just didn't work. I decided to ditch the gimmicky line and just start with the action, which I think is actually more attention getting anyway.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly. The gimmicky first line always drives me crazy.

    That said, there are always exceptions to the rule. One of my favorite books of all time has a gimmicky first line, and the tone doesn't fit the rest of the book. But the rest of the book is SO GOOD that I can forgive it. The book is THE SPECTACULAR NOW by Tim Tharp, and the first paragraph is this:

    So, it's a little before ten a.m. and I'm just starting to get a good buzz going. Theoretically, I could be in Algebra II, but in reality I'm cruising over to my beautiful fat girlfriend Cassidy's house. She ditched school to get her hair cut and needs a ride because her parents confiscated her car keys. Which I guess is a little ironic considering that they're punishing her for ditching school with me last week.

    This is so gimmicky, and it almost put me off the whole story. Plus, the main character doesn't talk about his drinking problem like this for the rest of the book, so it doesn't fit. But the rest of the book is amazing, so I forgave that first paragraph. :)

  3. I love first lines that immediately draw you into the action, but wow they're difficult to execute WHILE communicating all the other essential details in an immediate set up.

  4. Great examples. You're so right. That first line leaves the reader expecting to see the next lines follow through.

  5. Pretty hilarious first line blooper!
    I really like Lo' first line. It inspires me to read the book, which I have but haven't had time for... yet.

  6. Tabitha has pointed out something else about these openings: there's always exceptions. It's amazing, isn't it? You think you've got it nailed and will produce just the right line and not make any of those mistakes, and then you read a book that's fabulous and has a rotten opening. Well, this is an art form, not a paint by numbers.

  7. Good post Lee. Those first lines hooked me,now I have to go try to find the books!

  8. Happy Presidents’ Pets Day - the day after Presidents' Day, as I like to call it. See my blog for a good ol' howl.

  9. Oh, this was incredibly helpful. Going back right and looking at mine! Awesome post!

  10. Your post is timely for me because -I don't mean to pat my own back, but I'm gonna - I have a fantastic first line for my WIP. And I started to wonder if it was too good, setting the bar too high.

    I checked it against your list it did at least three out of five things. I think I'll keep it, for now.


  11. I'm really pleased that this post is helping you writers. I know it helped me to pull together what I needed to do to get my opening the best I could.

  12. fabulous post!! I love it! I'm reworking the opening to a manuscript right now, and I'm definitely going to give it this test!

  13. Wonderful post, C. Lee! I've never been a tremendous fan of that gimicky first line, but I could never articulate why. Now you've done it for me!! Thank you. :)

  14. That first line is so important and so hard to write.

  15. I absolutely love the five questions. Excellent food for thought. Thank you!

  16. Very helpful discussion. Here's a link to the American Book review of the top 100 opening lines in fiction,
    Since I'm doing final edits on my new novel, Scorpion Bay, I checked. The opening line is "Parker Knight owed his wife an apology." In that since only, it's semi-autobiographical.

  17. This is so true. It's hard to start media res with all the action and hook, but not overwhelm where the story is headed. Great discussion.


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