Writing The First Lines Of Your Novel

Readers often decide whether or not to buy your novel based on its first lines.

No pressure, right?

As a writer, it feels unfair for so much to ride on a very small number of words. But your own book buying probably follows the pattern. If you like the cover and the description on the sales page (or the back of the book or inside book jacket in a book store), you open page one and read a line or two.

If you like it you may keep reading and buy. Otherwise, you’ll click away or walk away.

Fortunately, there are some things you can do to improve the odds that your first page will draw the reader in.

Rewriting Your First Lines

It sounds contrary to what I just said, but try not to worry about the first lines in your first draft.

Throw something on the page, get your first draft finished (and perhaps a second draft, too, depending how many rewrites you generally do), then look at whether your first lines do what they need to do.

The main reasons for that are:

  • Struggling to write perfect first lines in an initial draft can keep you from getting the book finished
  • Even if you plot or outline beforehand, what you want to convey in those first lines may change as you finish the book
  • You will get to know your characters better as you write and will have a better sense what tone to use

After all, if you never complete the novel, you’ll never need to worry about drawing readers in. So first things first, and in this case that means finishing the book.

Conflict Not Info

It’s tempting to include a lot of information in your first page.

You may feel your readers need it to understand the scene or story. But when you share a lot of background—known as an info dump—it can easily bore readers.

For one thing, they don’t yet know why that background information matters, so they have no compelling reason to keep reading it. Also, while a few readers may simply be interested in the subject matter, they picked up a novel for story. If they primarily wanted to learn about a topic, they’d likely grab a non-fiction book or watch a documentary.

So focus on story, which means focus on conflict.

You can hint at the major conflict of your novel or start with a more minor clash. Either way, though, someone on your first page must want something that’s hard to get or be confronted with a problem that’s hard to solve.

And if your reader needs information to understand what’s happening, look for a way to weave it into the conflict.

I did my best to do that in the first lines of the first book in my Awakening series:

Tara folded and unfolded the pink referral slip. Her fingers made sweat marks on the paper. “I can’t be pregnant. I haven’t had sex.”

These four lines introduce the main conflict for the entire book.

They show the main character’s nervousness–she’s folding and unfolding paper and her fingers are sweating. And they hint she’s in a doctor’s office, as she’s got a referral slip.

Had I started instead with a paragraph about Tara’s many younger siblings, or her plans for med school, or her boyfriend, I likely would have lost a lot of readers. They wouldn’t know what the story was about or if there was a story at all rather than a character study of an upbeat young college student.

See Some Plays

The best rule I ever heard for how much backstory or information to give the reader is to share whatever the reader needs to understand at that very moment.

Reading or watching plays is a great way to see that done.

That’s because playwrights don’t have the luxury of including a paragraph of exposition in a first scene or any scene. While a few plays have narrators who tell the audience information, that tends to bore audiences or take them out of the story, so typically everything must come through in character action or dialogue.

Pay particular attention to the first scene.

Think about how long it took you to understand what’s happening and whether the questions you had made you want to keep watching or left you frustrated and confused.

First Line Looks Matter

The appearance of your first page and first lines affects how likely a reader is to keep reading.

Dense text, long paragraphs, and long sentences put many readers off, particularly if you’re writing in a genre that’s known for quick reads or that’s meant to be light and fun.

Take a look at books you think are similar to yours.

How many sentences are in most of the paragraphs on the first page? How long are the sentences? Does the first page include only one or two paragraphs? Or five or six?

Also, keep in mind that readers’ preferences have changed over the years. Gone With The Wind, published over eighty years ago and still popular, started with two long paragraphs. A current popular book in a similar genre broke its text into five paragraphs:

None of this means you need to do exactly what everyone else is doing. But keeping in mind how your first lines look can help ensure you don’t turn off readers who might otherwise love your work.

Convey Your Genre

Finally, your first lines also should hint at or clearly signal your genre.

The first lines of The Awakening suggest suspense, fantasy, horror, or science fiction. (I’ve drawn readers from all three categories). I lose some readers with the lines, but they are readers who will never like the book because they don’t like speculative fiction, so that’s good.

Had I started with a conflict between Tara and her boyfriend over him flirting with another woman, that would suggest a different type of book.

Look online at examples of first lines from books in your genre. Focus on what elements signal to you that it’s a book that tells the type of story you prefer.

You can also ask a group of friends who don’t know what type of book you’re writing to read your first few lines only. Ask them what they think the book will be about. It’s a fun exercise, and most people enjoy doing it.

That’s all for today.

Until next Friday—

L.M. Lilly

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