The first line is the most important line. Be it a query, your work or even a job interview, this line can be the life or death of your efforts. Don’t waste your chance to shine with what may immediately turn off your listener. Give the oomph, the bang, the sizzle and pop before anything else. You will thank yourself for it later.
I’m in Marketing, by the way. Finding the first line is what I do. Sometimes finding the first line takes longer than researching and writing an article together. It is worth it in the end; page hits and media requests confirm it.
This month marks the anniversary of when I first began work on Lightbringer. It has been a long and wonderful journey, though I have struggled with this work in many ways. The main thing I have struggled with is the first line. I can’t tell you how many revisions of this sentence I have been through. If I wrote them all down I am sure they would sum an entire page of notebook paper.
One complete year has passed and I’ve finally settled on a first line! Once again, it took the same amount of time to research and write a piece of work as it did to settle on one simple sentence. Just as I’m happy with myself for finally getting it right, I’m over-joyed with the line. It does the thing it’s been trying to do for a year: succeed.
It’s a very simple one, too. It isn’t gimmicky or clichéd or superfluous or a run on sentence that packs far too much detail into a limited amount of space and just keeps going and going until it is the size of an entire paragraph insert even more detail here.
See how irritating that is to read? There’s no beat, no pause, no punctuation. It doesn’t give the reader a chance to breath, nor does it allow time to process the information the reader is given. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a fan of reading the same sentence thrice.
Clichés are no-no phrases. They’re boring, they’re unoriginal and they spark little interest. Why re-read something you have read so many times before? I don’t want to spend my money on a rehash of something I just spent my money on.
Here are a few examples:
“Once upon a time…”
“It was a dark and stormy night…”
“The battle was bloody and…”
“No one knew that [pronoun] was actually a(n) [noun.]”
Is you first line something that’s been ‘done to death?’ Consider finding a way to rephrase it—put it in your own words. Or replace it entirely. I had a clichéd first line that I almost immediately cut. It was a hard decision at firts, but I haven’t looked back on it since.
Description is not the key. Originally, the first chapter of Lightbringer was nothing but description. There was no action, no story, just lots and lots of description of the old gothic church by the aged cemetery. It was four thousand words of fluff that I was told time and time again to cut. Eventually I swallowed my pride and did. Chapter one completely disappeared. Chapter two filled the void it left behind, but I still didn’t have that great first line. Happily I have it now. This week I'm in a very good mood because of that.
Want to story off with that oomph? Bang? Sizzle and pop? Here’s how to do it: Show your reader why they should read your work. What’s in it for them? How can they relate to it? Is it something they will be happy they spent $9.99—$24.99 on?
This isn’t accomplished through fluffy words, clichés or run on sentences. It’s accomplished by being honest, by not trying too hard. Don’t attempt to be clever or fresh—what you’ve written has probably been done before. Let the words flow the way they want to. Sometimes the simplest first line can turn out to be the best one in the entire book.
I encourage you to think about your story, your plot, your action. How can you reflect them in your first line? Can you work a little action in to give it that wow-effect? (Remember, though: If the action doesn’t come naturally, it wasn’t meant to be there.) Think about how you can give your first line some sizzle while keeping it as honest and simple as you can. Send it out to test readers, see what they think. If the overall feedback is ‘not quite,’ don’t take it personal, just try again.
Give readers something to relate to. Provide a reason for your reader to want to move on to sentence two.
"The very last thing she said was 'I love you.'"
(People who have experienced loss can connect with this.)
“There was no other choice, he had to jump.”
(Why is he jumping? Why is it his only choice?”)
“Listening to me is in your best interest.”
(Hmmm… will I benefit from listening to her? Let’s see…)
Each of these lines have a purpose, as should yours. Connect with your reader. Grip your reader, or make your reader ask “What’s in it for me?” Your first line is a reflection of your work. Start off with a reason—something that will travel all the way to the final line.
What happens if the words don’t come? No worries. Take a break, have a Coke and reflect on it later. It took many Cokes, many months and many revisions, but it was all worth it in the end. After all that waiting, I finally found my first line.
Until next time,