Tuesday, October 11, 2011

She's Crafty: First Lines

I do not hinge my interest in a story based on the first line, but I do notice when it is done well. A great book should hook the reader from the first line, first paragraph, and first page (and really till the end of chapter one) pulling the reader deeper into the characters and the plot.

I've even read somewhere that a debut author should treat each chapter like a chapter one.

This makes sense for middle grade, when readers can be reluctant and will easily put the book down if it doesn't hold their interest.

So I decided to do an experiment. I took the top five middle grade books in my To-Read pile and picked my next book based only on the first line.

Here are the first lines, which would you pick?
  • "Take good care of this girl," Miss Beatty told the coachman. --The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall
  • Ms. McMartin was definitely dead. --The Books of Elsewhere: The Shadows
  • The house was a mansion, the lake was a pool, Kitty was a dog, and Juniper Berry was an eleven-year-old girl. --Juniper Berry.
  • I was fairly sure I would not leave the meeting alive. --The 39 Clues: The Black Book of Buried Secrets #1
  • The hat in question was owned by Mrs. Constance Lovestock. --The Emerald Atlas

It actually took me awhile to decide. The Ghost of C Hall didn't cut it, neither did The Emerald Atlas which is funny because I've heard amazing things about both books and The Emerald Atlas was at the top of my pile. (The only reason I haven't read it is because Lauren and her friends have been passing it around--swearing that it is their new favorite book.)

So that leaves the other three, and all three first-lines are good for different reasons. The Shadows tells me it is a spooky mystery (plot reveal), Juniper Berry is a rich and quirky girl (character reveal), and The 39 Clues is a dangerous adventure (plot reveal).

In the end, I chose The Shadows because it's October and I wanted a spooky mystery but normally I would lean adventure. Juniper Berry (which is actually a spooky story) got cut.

Which leads to my next question: in middle grade, should your first line be a character reveal or plot reveal?

I know, it depends on the story.

My current MG story that I'm querying is a fantasy adventure which means I should lead with a plot reveal because the first 18 pages are character building till I get to the inciting incident. I realize now, my readers need to know where the story is going before they invest the time in my characters.

Of course I queried with a character reveal, only to wait months to hear it wasn't a strong enough hook. In my revision, I've decided to change my first page and lead with a plot reveal. I hope it's stronger. (We'll find out next week when I send out more queries.)

Need help crafting your first line?

It's a Start: The First Line @ The Other Side of the Story.


  1. Urrgggh! That first line is tough. I re-worked and re-worked mine. I have one that's working (for now). I'm still a bit stuck on the last line, however, and it's in flux. But....sometimes I read a super, fantastic book and the opening sentence did NOT blow me away whatsoever. Interesting.

  2. First lines are soooo important. And so difficult to do well.

    Great post, Brooke! If you're writing fantasy, I think for inspiration you should look to Rick Riordan, who seems to always start with action. Character can be revealed little by little along the way.