By: Stacey Purcell
Easy reading is damn hard writing. ~Nathaniel Hawthorne
“I don’t normally make a habit of hiring thieves as security specialists,” Lucy Sharpe met the cold blue gaze of a man she’d never imagined would return …after she discharged him under a cloud of suspicion. –Taken from Make Her Pay by Roxanne St. Claire
Did this get your attention? Does it make you want to know why he was fired under a cloud of suspicion? Does that suspicion have something to do with the fact that she just called him a thief? And why would he return looking for a job?
Whether you are getting ready to self-pub or send your story out to an agent, your first lines are crucial. Caroline Joy Adams states that the average person reads about 200 words per minute. You only have half that time to get their attention. This means you have 30 seconds to hook your reader to go beyond the first paragraph. Scary, no?
Writers don’t have time to warm up the audience, good fiction starts with something that grabs you and won’t let you go until the last page. Roxanne St. Claire is particularly good at creating first lines that make a million questions roll through your head. I had to read the next sentence because I wanted to know why that guy came looking for a job from a CEO that obviously thought he was a thief….or maybe he was a thief!
I had the opportunity to take a week long workshop called Writing The Breakout Novel led by Donald Maass and he had quite a lot to say. He explains that weak first lines are like a limp handshake- it creates less than stellar impressions and expectations. Unfortunately, we often squander that first opportunity and our lines don’t create a tone, make us ask questions, or yank at our emotions. Remember you only have thirty seconds and you’ve already wasted the first 10.
A great first line pulls us immediately into a story. Donald says that it opens a world in which things are already happening making us want to discover more about this world between the covers of the book. So, what makes first lines effective?
Well, I thought I knew. On the last day, he worked with us on this topic and then asked for volunteers to read their first lines. My hand shot up before my brain could scream loud enough to make it come back down. He called on me. I realized the rash stupidity of my actions as my trembling hand lifted the page sitting on the table. I read-
These people have no idea they’re about to die, he observed, as if looking at lab animals in an unthinkable experiment.
My embarrassment grew as he tilted his head back and forth contemplating the words. Obviously, it wasn’t up there with Hemingway, but it seemed better than Snoopy’s “It was a dark and stormy night.” I could feel the heat creeping up my neck as I waited for the verdict. Then the worst happened, he opened it up for everyone to throw in their opinion. Could I just die?
To make a long story short, the consensus was that it was an OK way to begin, but not so great. Donald thought it was a bit cartoonish, others thought it gave away too much, too soon etc. etc. etc. I survived that day and after I got home to savor many glasses of cabernet, I realized it wasn’t the first line for me. He was right. I revised and this is what I wrote-
The lie was complete.
Blood orange wings audibly flitted above his bed-roll as the Atlas moth made lazy eights, each beat bringing death closer. There was nothing left to do except wait. He marked time with the slow pulsing of the giant moth’s wings as it came to rest on the side of an ancient Banyan tree.
This opening has received a much stronger approval than my old one. What is the lie? Why is death getting closer? Why is he just waiting? My hope is that I’ve created a beginning intriguing enough to pull my readers in.
What are your first lines? Do they pull the reader in? Why don’t you share your strokes of brilliance with us? I’d love to read them!