Sara and Emma talk through tips for hooking an agent through a compelling first line.
At the Festival which took place in June we gave a first chapter workshop. With examples of great first lines, opening paragraphs and endings, more than 70 writers were shown how to engage their readers from the very start. Over half those attending stood up and read their opening lines to the audience. Thanks to festival organisers Judith Heneghan and Sara Gangai for inviting us.
What are agents looking for? What should your first line contain to get their attention?
Your first line needs to give some indication of both authority and style. It needs to be striking, so that the reader or literary agent sits up and wants to read on.
A publisher once told me that a good way to get the best out of a writer is to imagine you’re writing for someone you know, or worse: someone who knows you. You as writers need to think about the reader because they’re going to do half the job with you – as you’re doing now.
Your first line is an invitation. So what makes a good first line?
A first line is like a wink, a pout, a finger beckoning – it has to be evocative. It has to offer the reader something: a fact, a sense of place, narrative or character.
Here are some tips and a few examples of good first lines.
First line pointers
Start your novel with action. But that doesn’t mean start with waking up, the school drop off, cleaning your teeth, washing your face, looking in a mirror etc., unless you intend to make the quotidian extremely interesting. It’s surprising how many people start their novels with waking up. If you’re going to start with waking up you need to have a very good reason, such as waking up to discover you’re an insect. Deborah Levy starts Hot Milk with the narrator dropping her computer. It’s an action.
Start with a character: their thoughts, their feelings, a piece of dialogue. I think it is also a good idea if you are going to give your main character’s dialogue, to give them opinions too – that helps establish their attitudes right from the start.
Don’t start your novel with information. Unless you can make that information evocative, which Ian McEwan does very well in Chesil Beach. We’re going to be reading that out later. Saskia Sarginson also does in her novel, The Twins, when she describes how identical twins come about. It’s information but with a strong voice.
Place the reader in the moment. As if this is happening right now, right there. This is particularly good if you write in the present tense. But it also works in the past tense. David Simons starts his novel, A Woman of Integrity right in the middle of a scene, halfway through a piece of dialogue.
Start with setting. As long as it is redolent with atmosphere. This is usually achieved with visually. Novel writing is surprisingly visual. A good example of an evocative setting is Anthony Doerr’s, All The Light We Cannot See.
Be bold, be direct, be oblique. You can even be weird as long as you do it with conviction.
Don’t start with the weather Elmore Leonard always said don’t start with the weather because the reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for a character, but there are exceptions, if you want to create a mood and you happen to be brilliant at weather, then go ahead, but don’t go on too long.
Talk to your reader as if they’re in the room, make it personal. Jeanette Winterson does this in her novel Written on The Body. She starts with a question: Why is the measure of love loss?
TIP: Have a look at that first line after you’ve finished the last. A mentee once said: It’s like a sat nav, isn’t it? You can’t know the route until you work out the end.
So you can start a novel anyway you want, but play to your strengths. Here are some examples:
“At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. ” Anthony Doerr – All The Light We Cannot See
This is a great example of visually setting a scene. It’s evocative, it’s captivating and yet it’s also informative – we know that the story is probably set in the war.
Make information enticing.
“They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.” Ian McEwan – On Chesil Beach
This is a fabulous example of when ‘telling’ really works. Ian McEwan has given us massive clues as to the story content, but the reader doesn’t know that yet. It’s information, but told with such lucidity and confidence that we are immediately engaged.
Here’s one of my favourites:
“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” Iain Banks – The Crow Road
It’s a funny line and that’s enough to draw the reader in. But the reader’s mind is also working, thinking ahead – under what circumstances could his grandmother explode? Was she wearing a suicide vest? Did someone blow her up? Or is it because someone forgot to remove her pacemaker as her body disappears into the crematorium.
“It’s not what you know or don’t know: it’s what you allow yourself to know. I’m on my way home in a second class smoker from Victoria.” Helen Dunmore – Exposure
This first line shows great authority and what an imaginative way to inform us that we’re in the past. In this first line we have a profound thought and setting. Helen talks directly to the audience.
Or, start in the middle of a scene:
“Laura felt a horrible lurch in her stomach as she tried to absorb the news. ‘You’re dumping me?’ she countered. ‘After all these years?’ David Simons – A Woman of Integrity.
David has started in the middle of a conversation, so the reader is already having to work and try and guess what preceded this section. It’s a great hook. The idea here also was to confuse the reader slightly – the immediate assumption is that this is the end of a romantic relationship while in fact Laura is being dumped by her agent. That assumption isn’t quashed until a few sentences later by which time the reader is already feeling wary about what they are supposed to be thinking and so they need to read more to find out what is going on.
We thought for a bit of fun we’d ask David to rewrite this first line badly.
“Laura felt devastated by the news her agent had dumped her after all these years. Her movie career was over”.
Writing it this latter way takes away the mystery of who dumped her. It lays out the story from the off, whereas in the first version the reader has to work slightly to imagine what is going on. That is the important point really – to get the reader to work because once the reader’s imagination is working, then they are engaged in the novel.
How about some examples from the classics:
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
The rhythm of the first line is very important. There’s a musical rhythm to Fitzgerald’s writing that is very compelling. It’s a novel about disillusionment and hopelessness. In this first line he suggests a yearning for the past.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell – 1984
The bright and cold is oxymoronic. There’s a clash between hope and despair. The thirteen shows that the world in not as we know it – we’re in a futuristic, unknown world.
“Stately plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed.” James Joyce – Ulysses
This is a favourite for no other reason than it is the beauty of the language that draws the reader in. Not even the first sentence but the first four words. Who begins a novel with an adverb? And if you say the words out loud they just burst in the mouth like a juicy and sumptious fruit – stately plump Buck Mulligan. So poetic.
A study done a few years ago showed that most successful classic novels began with an interesting sentence containing a pronoun such as ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘they’. This could also be said of Bob Dylan.
“If you see her, say hello, she might be in Tangiers.” Eleven words that could already be a whole novel about a lost love, a woman as free as the wind, a woman he still wants to be in touch with even though she has left him.
Bob Dylan – If you see her say hello