Where Teens Write is closing its doors as a teen writing community, but the “how to write” blog posts will be up for another few weeks.
 
I’m happy to announce that you can post your stories and get feedback over at Teen Author’s Journal. Like WTW, it’s a smaller community where you can build relationships with others and hone your writing skills.
 
It’s been a great few years with all of you, but it’s time to close the doors to this community. If you did post stories here that you didn’t save anywhere else, and you’d like them, you may contact me using the contact page, and I’ll get you your story. Thank you for participating.
 
All the best,
Amy
 

Start your Story Strong: 6 Strategies to Write a Great First Line

first lineStarting a new story or novel is one of the most exciting parts of writing…and also one of the most challenging.

There’s so much to think about: How to “hook” your reader? Where or when does your story start? What characters should be on the first page?

These are huge decisions that will dictate the rest of your story. A while back, I wrote a post on what to include in your first chapter. But this post is all about how to start your story with an amazing first line, so I started with an “investigation,” my standard “read like a writer” procedure to solve my #writerprobs.

I pulled a stack of books off of my shelf and read only the first lines, thinking about whether or not I would keep reading that novel, based solely on the first line.

There wasn’t one that I wouldn’t continue reading. They all caught my attention – which is probably why they’re on my shelves in the first place. 🙂

Here’s a sampling of the lines I read:

  1. “I was dozing when I heard the scream. It pierced my head like a morta round, doing terribly befuddling things to my mind, as loud and terrifying as though it were all happening right there and then.”
  2. “First they take our flat screen. And the computers, all of Dad’s satellite equipment, stereos, DVDs. Even the George Foreman grill.”
  3. “Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.”
  4. “It is my first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache.”
  5.  “My mother thinks I’m dead. Obviously I’m not dead, but it’s safer for her to think so.”
  6.  “Five lousy minutes. Detective George Rawls hung up the phone, brought his feet down from his cluttered desktop, looked at his watch, and sighed. If the kid had walked into the station five minutes later, Rawls’s shift would have been over. He would have been driving home to enjoy a peaceful dinner with his wife.”
  7.  “My name is Nicole Sparks. Welcome to the first day of the worst summer of my life.”
  8.  “I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves. They were licking me, biting me, worrying at my body, pressing in.”
  9. “There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.”
  10. “Han Alister squatted next to the steaming mud spring, praying that the thermal crust would hold his weight.”

Which ones would you keep reading after reading only the first line?

Every author hooked me and made me ask a question that could only be answered if I kept reading. And, they did this in one or two lines.

How did they do this? I discovered six strategies these authors used to start their stories. If you analyzed your favorite books, you could probably find some more.

6 strategies to write a great first line

1) Write a shocking statement, something unbelievable or weird in your character’s life.

Example: “My mother thinks I’m dead. Obviously I’m not dead, but it’s safer for her to think so.”

What? Why does his mother think he’s dead? This character is on the run, so the author takes a fact that sounds completely illogical and shocking and starts there. It works.

The question we instantly ask: Why on earth does his mother think he’s dead? And how can that be safer for her? Who is this guy?

2) Describe the setting, but include features that make it clear we’re reading about a different world.

Example: “There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.”

Example: “Han Alister squatted next to the steaming mud spring, praying that the thermal crust would hold his weight.”

Both of these first lines reference items or events that instantly let the reader know this is a different world. In the first sentence, the character can’t look at a mirror, and in the second, the character is perched on a thermal crust at a steaming mud spring, not a common geographical feature.

The questions we instantly ask: Where are they? Why can’t she look in a mirror? What’s a mud spring and why is he squatting on a thermal crust? What is this world?

3) Include a strong emotional reaction to a situation.

Example: “Five lousy minutes. Detective George Rawls hung up the phone, brought his feed down from his cluttered desktop, looked at his watch, and sighed.”

This novel starts off with a character who’s angry that he met a kid who’s obviously going to take a bunch of his time. We also get a great image of this main character. His desk is cluttered. He’s annoyed. But, he’s staying, so he’s either really devoted to his work, or he’s got a big heart.

The questions we instantly ask: Who’s the kid? What did he do to end up at the police station? And why is it going to take so long?

4) Describe a shocking memory

Example: “I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.”

Woah, a memory of wolves. This is a strange but really cool memory, and the writing is lyrical.

The key to this strategy is to make sure that the memory is crucial to the entire rest of the story and character development.

The questions we instantly ask: Is this a story of a werewolf? Or a human raised by wolves? Or perhaps it’s told from a wolf’s perspective?

5) Introduce the main character with a super strong voice and emotion.

Example: “My name is Nicole Sparks. Welcome to the first day of the worst summer of my life.”

Example: “Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.”

Example: “It is my first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache.”

Each of these novels are written in first person and the character’s voice is HUGE in the writing style. They’re the main characters, and they’re all EMOTIONAL. One is pissed about the worst summer, another is depressed, and the third is full of anxiety.

These young women start their stories in pretty crappy places. And they all get worse.

The question we instantly ask: What’s so terrible with their lives that their emotional wrecks?

6) Include a surprising, bad, or unexplained event.

Example: “I was dozing when I heard the scream. It pierced my head like a morta round, doing terribly befuddling things to my mind, as loud and terrifying as though it were all happening right there and then.”

Example: “First they take our flat screen. And the computers, all of Dad’s satellite equipment, stereos, DVDs. Even the George Foreman grill.”

Bombs going off and having someone take all of your belongings definitely fall into bad and surprising events. These both also have strong voice.

The first one also has “morta” rounds – that’s not a typo. I’ve heard of mortar rounds but not morta, so this one also has a hint that it’s a different world, right from the very first line.

Questions we instantly ask: Why the bombs? And who’s the “they” that’s taking their belongings and why are they taking them?

Find the Question you Want your Reader to Ask

They key take-away from this is that the first line of your story must somehow force the reader to ask a question. If the reader asks a question, then they’ll keep reading to find out the answer.

If I were to start a story with, “This morning I woke up at 6:00, got dressed into an outfit I didn’t like that much and went to school,” I would fail to hook my reader.

Would you want to keep reading? I wouldn’t.

There’s nothing there to make me like this character or wonder about her (or his) life. It’s boring.

When you’re crafting your first line, think about what question you want the reader to ask themselves. Is it about your character? Their situation? The world you’ve created?

Then, write a line that somehow forces your reader to ask that question. If you can do that, you’ll hook them.

Conclusion

Give yourself time with this process. I’ve NEVER kept the first, first line that I wrote, though you may be one of the lucky few who nail it on your first try.

Keep writing your story and come back to it. Remember the goal is to get your reader to read your entire story, so write your whole story and then figure out what you really want your reader to wonder about on page one. Give yourself time, and as always, turn off your inner critic and play with this. It’s fun!

Put it in Action

1) Grab a story or two that you’ve written.

2) Read the first line. What question(s) did you ask yourself?

3) If you didn’t question anything, think about what you want your readers to wonder about and re-write your first line.

4) Post your first lines and their revisions (if you made any) in the comments below. We can work on them if you’re stuck or see how great they are!

 

In the comments below, share your favorite first line (either from the list I used or another novel) and/or share any first lines that you wrote and revised after reading this post.

Thank you so much for taking this writing journey with me!
Amy

If you’d like to read any of the novels quoted above, they’re identified here:

  1. The Finisher, David Baldacci
  2. Compromised, Heidi Ayarbe
  3. The Fault in Our Stars, John Green
  4. Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson
  5. Legend, Marie Lu
  6. Blank Confession, Pete Hautman
  7. Keeping the Moon, Sarah Dessen
  8. Shiver, Maggie Stiefvater
  9. Divergent, Veronica Roth
  10. The Demon King, Cinda Williams Chima
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