The Importance of a Great First Line

istock_000000215912xsmall1 Woman on PhoneThe phone threatened to tumble from Keli Gwyn’s trembling hand as she pushed her reply to the nurse past the boulder lodged in her throat. “Are you telling me it’s time to . . . gather the family?”

What’s going on here? Who is Keli Gwyn? Why is her hand trembling? What did the nurse tell her? Is someone gravely ill? If so, who?

And where’s the interview you’re used to seeing on this blog?

Good questions. I’ll answer the last one first.

From time to time, I post articles of interest to my fellow romance writers in lieu of the usual interviews with my wonderful guests. Since many of us are swamped this time of year, including possible guests, I’m going to provide posts on different topics that relate to romance writing over the next two weeks. Consider them my Christmas gift to you. On January 5, my first guest of 2009 will be interviewed, debut author Kaye Dacus. Until then, I hope you enjoy the articles.

And now back to the questions that may have you wondering if I lost it, or if I plan to go somewhere with this post . . .

My goal was to write an opening that grabbed your attention. I also wanted to leave you wondering what was going on, what had happened before, and what was yet to come. (And, for the record, I cheated, using two sentences. Great writers can capture their readers in one.)

Now for some answers, and then we’ll move on.

I’m Keli Gwyn, keeper of this blog and romance writer seeking publication. The opening sentence for this post describes what I experienced the Tuesday after Thanksgiving in 2001 when the cardiac nurse from our local hospital called to inform me that my father-in-law not only had pneumonia, but he had congestive heart failure and wasn’t expected to make the night. Since we were operating under the impression that he was on the road to recovery, the news came as a shock.

My family lost a special man the next morning. And I learned how one phone call can change a life forever.

Are you feeling sad about now? Then I succeeded in evoking emotion with my opening and making you want to know more. And that, my dear visitor, is what this post is about.

To engage a reader, a writer must reel her in right away. Over and over we hear that if we don’t capture agents or editors’ attention with our first lines, they may not read any further. Sometimes they admit to giving us a paragraph, but in many cases not any more.

I used to balk when I read such statements. How could one possibly judge my masterpiece based on a single sentence? I mean, really. Judging a story from one line seemed shortsighted and downright unfair.

Over time my perception changed, and I began to understand why the opening of a book is so important. I attended Angela Hunt’s awesome fiction writing workshop at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference in March 2008. One of Angie’s many excellent exercises was to listen to her read first lines anonymously contributed by our fellow workshop participants. Our job was to raise our hands if what she read made us want to hear more.

That day I saw for the first time what I’d been told repeatedly. (Ah, yes. Showing versus telling works in life as well as in my writing.) Some of the first lines Angie read solicited lackluster responses. But then she’d share an amazing one that grabbed us, and hands would shoot up all over the room.

At the same conference, I attended a class, Surprised by Detail, taught by Andy McGuire, an editor at Moody Press. He said editors want to be surprised. And so do readers. I spent an enlightening hour hearing examples of what openings had worked for him and why.

This fall I judged my first contest entries and saw for myself exactly what Angie and Andy had been saying. I could tell from the opening if an entry had the extra Wow Factor that made it stand out from the rest. Those writers who pulled me in from the beginning delivered a great read and left me wanting more. Those whose openings had a ho-hum feel generally told a nice story, but often I finished the entry without a burning desire to find out what was going to happen to their characters. Those writers had failed to gain my attention from the start.

After these lessons, my perception of the importance of first lines did an about face. I’m now a firm believer in the value of a brilliant, stand-out-from-the-crowd opening. I don’t profess to having mastered the writing of them, but I aim to produce the best openings I can.

istock_000007705299xsmall Woman ReadingA great opening has one major job: keep the reader reading. What goes into such an opening? Basically you want to surprise her, show change taking place, pose questions she wants answered, and/or drop her in the middle of the action.

There are myriad blog posts and craft books that cover the topic in greater. Since I’m no expert, here are some links to check out.

My Book Therapy: How to Hook your reader!! by Susan May Warren

Rants and Ramblings: Write a Captivating First Line by Rachelle Gardner

Suite 101: Crafting a Riveting Opening Hook by Camy Tang

Writing Fiction: That All Important First Line by Crawford Kilian

* * *

And now, a couple of questions for you . . .

What is a memorable line you’ve read from a published work that pulled you into a story, and why do you think it works so well?

What’s a opening line from one of your stories you’re happy with and/or has captured your readers’ or critique partners’ attention?

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About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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3 Responses to The Importance of a Great First Line

  1. Myra Johnson says:

    An opening line destined to become a classic is from Camy Tang’s book SUSHI FOR ONE:

    Eat and leave. That’s all she had to do.
    If Grandma didn’t kill her first for being late.

    It’s one of those openings that immediately makes you wonder who this person is and what crazy situation she’s gotten herself into.

    Great post, Keli! Congrats on your success with this blog!

  2. Anne Barton says:

    Keli, your article is such an unexpected treat! I’ve been thinking a lot about first lines lately, and how hard it is to write a really great one.

    I like how you boil down the test of a killer first line to one question–does it make you want to read more?

    How can something so simple be so hard to write?

    A great book I read recently is The Leopard Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt. The first line is:

    “After the carriage wreck and a bit before the horses ran away, Lady Georgina Maitland noticed that her land steward was a man.”

    Right away, you realize the story will be about a privileged woman who falls in love with (*gasp*) her servant.

    I’m too embarrassed to share any of my first lines. But you’ve inspired me to rework them. Thanks, and I can’t wait for the next article. 🙂

  3. Missy Tippen’s first line always stays in mind. It was just too great.
    I never even thought about first lines either, until I opened Sol Stein’s On Writing. Suddenly, my eyes were opened.
    Great post and I’m so sorry to hear about your father.
    Hopefully you were able to have a nice Christmas this year. 🙂

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