Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Three Things

As promised in the previous post about first lines, here are the elements I think make a first line work.  First, do I get a sense of who the character is from the first line?  I am looking for hints and clues of personality, demeanor, stress or tension, anything that gives me the feeling that, although I am reading a work of fiction, this character is believable and real.  Second, do I get a sense of conflict?  The first line does not have to describe a life or death struggle at its most critical moment.  It could be internal struggle.  It could be a sense of inevitable conflict that I know must soon unfold because of the personality, demeanor, stress, or tension I detected about the character.  Third, am I filled with questions after that first line?  Not questions like, "What is this person talking about?  It makes no sense!"  But, rather, questions like, "Why is the character happy they are imprisoned?" or "What does the character fear will happen to her father if she tells her secret?" 

If the first line intrigues me with an interesting character, sparks my curiosity about a conflict that character faces, and leaves me with questions I must have answered, I will read the next line of the story.  And if each paragraph unfolds more of the same three elements, I will read the entire novel.

How about you?  What first lines have you read and loved?  No posting bad ones here unless they are your own and you want to laugh about it.


  1. "On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on." - Chronicle of a Death Foretold

    "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." - The Hobbit

    though the second sentence is just as important, I think. as much as the first sentence must grab the reader in all the ways you mentioned, its purpose is really to prepare you for the second sentence and all of the surprise, direction, and emotion it holds. the second sentence reveals so much. I like that it can reinforce what was revealed in the first sentence, or change the expectations it gave the reader. for instance:

    Chronicle of a Death Foretold:
    "He'd dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream, but when he awoke he felt completely spattered with bird ****."

    The Hobbit
    "Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort."

    and I love the power that an epigraph has to set the stage, especially the feeling, before any details draw you in. like this:

    "Lawyers, I suppose, were children once." - To Kill a Mockingbird

    and these from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:

    "Oh, the torment bred in the race,
    the grinding scream of death
    and the stroke that hits the vein,
    the hemorrhage none can staunch, the grief,
    the curse no man can bear.

    But there is a cure in the house,
    and not outside it, no,
    not from others but from them,
    their bloody strife. We sing to you,
    dark gods beneath the earth.

    Now hear, you blissful powers underground -
    answer the call, send help,
    Bless the children, give them triumph now. (Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers)

    "Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass, they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that thought they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal. (William Penn,More Fruits of Solitude)

    just some fun thoughts :)

  2. Good advice...thanks for stopping by my blog!