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The First Line

A few of my own thoughts on getting the opening of your novel right.

The first line. It’s the beginning for the reader isn’t it? Well, probably not. Your first line is likely to be the fifth hurdle that your book has to jump in turning potential reader to actual reader.

1. Author. Sorry, but you’ll fall here. 50% of readers like what they know and won’t try an unknown unless by recommendation.

2. Title. It’s awesome and/or intriguing isn’t it?

3. Cover. It’s distinctive and memorable isn’t it?

4. Blurb. Wow – I must read this

5. First lines. Congratulations, you have a potential reader. Don’t lose her.

So, think of the reader. You have to hook the reader. You have to persuade him in these first lines that this will be a book he want to live with for hours/days/weeks (some people read slowly). Show them that your story is going to be great with a great opening line or paragraph.

So what makes a great opener? Here’s a few of my personal dos and don’ts always remembering that, as Captain Jack Sparrow found in Pirates of the Caribbean, writing rules, just like the pirates’ code, are more in the way of guidelines.

DO start with dialogue if possible. It’s a great way of getting in there. Not pass the salt, please dialogue but an argument or a hint at big events about to unfold.

DO start with action. It doesn’t need to be wham, bam action, although it can be, but somebody should be doing something.

DO start with an intriguing, enigmatic line. A line that will make the reader think what? and force them to read on.

DO start in genre (where appropriate). The thriller should be thrilling, the romance romantic.

DO start in the middle of something.

The argument – not what led up to it.

The kiss – not the candle-lit dinner that preceded.

The murder – not the detective having breakfast.

DON’T start with a description of the scene or the room or the weather unless it’s very short or very relevant to what will immediately follow.

DON’T have a character staring at themselves in a mirror and describing their appearance. Seriously, don’t. In fact mirrors should be banned from fiction.

DON’T ramble. Keep it tight. Cut all unnecessary words. This applies at any point of course but is vital in the first few lines.

Here’s a few random examples from books I have around at the moment.

He clenches the orange plastic pony in the pocket of his sports coat. Lauren Beukes

‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old,’ he murmured. Lin Anderson

So, Luke, what’s the last best hope of life? Thomas H Cook

‘I thought you were dead’. Martin Edwards

Last week I found a letter from you. Susan Hill

He wakes in a cold sweat from a dream pervaded by darkness and blood. Peter May

They strike at heat, she said. Thomas H Cook

Happy writing.

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