Mobile phones have changed the human attention span forever. Microsoft Corporation’s research found that since the year 2000 (when smartphone use became widespread) the average human attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to eight seconds. Wow — SQUIRREL — that’s less than a goldfish’s nine seconds.
The brain is a talented machine, but it takes us a full 15 minutes to become fully focused on something. When multiple screens are at our fingertips, we can easily become distracted by every detail.
Writing the perfect novel introduction is tricky because you have an average of eight seconds to capture someone. With that in mind, the perfect first line shouldn’t be long-winded. As a reader, I like to browse libraries and bookstores reading the first lines. When I find one I like, I grab it. As a writer, I want to create that same sense of urgency and mystery immediately that makes someone want to take a book home.
You’ve got to convey a message, use emotion, and present conflict — all in your first line! If your introduction meets these prerequisites, then you’ve got a good chance of capturing a human’s attention (and maybe even a goldfish’s).
You get one chance to make a first impression. Readers will decide within seconds (enough time to read the first line) if your book is worth their time. Psychologists call this “thin-slicing” (Psychology Today) and it’s one of the ways we judge how valuable information (or even another person) will be to us. The story must be there – and that’s real work!
Human beings are harsh critics; they will immediately judge whether or not your work is a good fit for them.
The bad news is that a bad first line can make your entire piece miss the mark with readers.
The good news is that when you get your opening line just right, your readers will completely swoon at what you have to say. They’ll come back begging for more.
Learning from the Published Authors Who Have Gone Before Us
Every first line (whether it begins a book, an article, or even a chapter) needs to pose questions in the reader’s mind and hint at something going wrong, something intriguing, or something else not quite normal in the story world. Check out these first lines and see what they suggest to you:
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”—The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
“I see darkness.”—Saint by Ted Dekker
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” –Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
In order to write the perfect first line for your own story, you’ll need to make sure you know two things: 1) the story’s main conflict, and 2) the theme and tone.
The theme and tone will be something that comes out in your voice throughout the book – but they’re also things you’ll need to pinpoint in the first line. Take your tone and wrap it around your story’s conflict in question — and voila, you have a killer first line.
In the examples above, the conflict driving The Hunger Games is survival of the fittest. Marry that with a tone that says I won’t give up, and you have Collins’ first line.
She uses strong words that immediately let you feel the tone of the novel and also suggest the story world. It puts readers on edge and prepares them for something bad to happen.
We’re left asking, “Who should be on the other side of the bed? Why aren’t they there?” First lines that pose questions in the reader’s mind are great because they’ll read on to find the answers.
In Saint, the conflict is a man trying to overcome his past. The tone is dark. Both of these things are very obvious in the first line.
This is also a thriller, and it sets that fast-paced tone with the extra-short first line. Dekker hints at the darkness of the story overall by making it literal in the setting. Readers are left asking, “Why is he seeing darkness? Is he blind? Did the lights suddenly go out?” Curiosity keeps us moving forward.
In the Harry Potter example, the conflict is created by a boy who just wants to be normal but who never will be (and that’s a good thing). The series has a light-hearted tone that hints at darker elements, and that shows up nicely in this first line.
The sassy tone and the reference to being normal makes readers ask, “What are they hiding?” Because we all know there’s no such thing as perfectly normal, and we’re going to read on to see their secrets.
Construct a Short Sentence with a Big Punch
Keep your initial sentence short. It creates a simple tone. The reader is less likely to tune out. Short sentences are absorbed quickly. (See how that reads?)
This sentence style packs a punch and makes your point quickly – which is especially good if you’re taking to a broad audience of readers using layman’s terms. You want your writing, especially your first line, to be easy to understand.
Brief sentences need a strong subject and verb to grab attention and hold it for the rest of the paragraph. This forces your writing to show more than it tells because the abruptness of it cuts out all unnecessary words.
Short sentences are meant to be easy to grasp. If you read it and ask, “Huh?” then it isn’t short enough yet. Figure out what you want to say with as few words as possible. This will get you organized and help your reader understand you.
Speak to Your Audience’s Expectations and Values
You’ll need to speak to your audience and their expectations. Granted, when you’re writing fiction, you probably won’t use a second-person voice to literally address the reader. But no matter the narrative style you choose, readers want to jump straight into the action — into the value. They come to books to be entertained by a story or to gain knowledge. Don’t hold back that value with your first line. Begin delivering what you plan to give your audience with the first sentence.
Does your introduction focus on giving the facts and backstory, or does it focus on the benefit to the reader? Sometimes writers need to spend some time explaining the content to themselves before getting to the point. Your audience, however, wants you to get to the point with the first line. They’re expecting to benefit from what you have to say based on your title or back cover copy. Get straight to the point.
Readers don’t want to start a fiction story with a character’s complete history and his/her likes or dislikes. (Or, worse, a description of the weather — though there is a place to do that properly.) Fiction readers want to jump straight to the meat of the story.
Capture the Heart of the Story in the First Line
When it comes to getting to the heart of the story, browse through the library and read some first lines in your genre. A perfect first line will grab your emotions and promise a story with heart. The heart of a story happens in the midst of character change. We love stories that show us what happens as a result of the choices people make. That heart — the suggestion of the challenges the characters will face and the strength with which they overcome difficulty — can bring depth and mystery to the first line.
One of my favorites is from The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater: “It’s the first day of November, and so today someone will die.” That first line gets straight to the heart of the story by making clear its tone and conflict (as you’ll discover if you read the book). As you read, that first line comes to suggest that even the main characters, Sean and Puck, will die. The core of the story’s tension comes from their fight to stay alive.
We’re left asking, “Will they make it?” And when we see them overcome, we believe we can overcome, too. That’s the power of the heart of a story. Nailing the tone and the central conflict of your story will point you as a writer toward a seemingly impossible triumph. When your characters cross that impossible line, you know you’ve found your story’s heart.
Your first line carries a lot of responsibility. It’s the first impression you give readers, agents, and editors. It has to be compelling enough to get them to the second sentence, and the third, and the fourth – and hopefully through the whole book.
Don’t Give up on the First Line — Bring in Your Theme
The first line takes the longest to master; you will have to rewrite it over and over again before you find something that works. You may even have to write the whole story and then come back to write the first line.
In her book Plot Perfect, literary agent Paula Munier has an excellent chapter on story theme. Your theme needs to make an appearance in your first line for it to hit home with a bang. After you’ve written the story, come back and give this exercise a shot. Paula goes into greater depth in her book:
First, ask yourself, “Which theme is most evident in your first scene?” Write it down.
Then research sayings that are associated with that theme. For example, if your theme is true love, a popular saying that goes with it is Love conquers all.
See if you can come up with your own statement about your theme similar to the one above. Ask yourself, what am I trying to say about my theme? What do I believe is the truth I want the whole world to believe through this story? Write those phrases down.
Chances are, at this point, you are halfway to a good first line.
The other half of your first line needs to give context. What is the main conflict present in your story, and is that present in the opening scene? (It should at least be hinted at in the opening scene!) Perhaps your conflict is the classic “man v. self”.
See if you can narrow your conflict down into a statement unique to your story, setting, and characters. “Man v. self” might become something more specific, like “It’s all my fault he left”. Make a list of statements that reflect your story’s conflict that can relate back to your opening scene.
Now take your lists of theme statements and conflict statements. See how you can mash them together in a way that makes sense for your opening scene.
Some ideas from the example above are “It’s a shame true love never dies because she can’t let him go”. Or “Love never fails until he questions it”. For additional exercises, Writer’s Digest has a great list of seven ways to create a killer first line.
First Lines are Worth the Work
Remember to keep your first line a firm statement. Don’t try to wedge in too much description. You can do that in the pages that follow.
When you have the perfect first line, you’ll feel it resonate emotionally. Deep in your gut, you’ll sense it’s the first line your story needs the most. It takes work – but it’s worth all of the effort to get it right.
Attention spans are shortening, and in order to be seen, writers need to adapt with powerful first lines.
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