First Lines Can Make or Break You

(writing)


My middle-school-aged daughter sat down to do her homework yesterday with a grunt. When I asked her what was wrong, she explained that instead of the normal two pages of science text she had to take notes on, the teacher had given her ten. Ten! She was anxious to get to her friend’s and concluded that all teachers hate kids. While I might agree at times–privately–I told her what every good mother would. “Buckle down and get it done.” Oh, and, “You’re not going to your friend’s until you finish.”

To my surprise, when I walked into the room five minutes later, she told me she was finished. Ten pages. Done. Just like that. My suspicions were pricked and I said–again–what any good mother would. “How?”

That’s when she informed me. “I just copied down the first line from each section. Easy.”

I’m pretty sure my eyes popped out.

“Wait!” Her hands flew up in defense, anticipating the coming flood of reproach. “Don’t freak out. The first line is the most important. It tells me everything I need to know anyway. All the other stuff is fluff.” Then she proceeded to read me the first line of each section and I found my fight slipping.

She was right.

I hate it when my kids are right. That first sentence summed up the whole section perfectly. Sure, the details weren’t there, and I wouldn’t recommend this style of studying for any student, but quite honestly with that one sentence, I knew exactly what was coming. But like all good mothers (not that I am one, but I pretend sometimes) I told her that didn’t count and to redo her notes.

Now . . . my mother hat is off. My daughter is in school, hopefully getting a decent grade on her corrected notes. I’ve since donned the writer’s hat, and here’s the question I’m stuck with:

Are your first lines boring?

How is my first sentence?

Not just for the beginning of my book–although that is vastly important–but for each chapter? Each section?

As authors, we want nothing more than for people to be unable to put down our book. Right? One of my favorite compliments starts something like, “I stayed up until 2 this morning finishing your book. I just started it yesterday.”  Yeah. That always makes me smile.

Part of this can’t-put-it-down trick comes from ending chapters correctly. Anyone can end a chapter at the end of the scene. Boring. How about ending it at the climax? Force people to turn that page. 

The first time I read The Hunger Games I read it for pleasure. The second time I read it as an author trying to learn. And that’s exactly what I learned. End your chapters at the very pinnacle of emotional tension. Here are just a few examples from Suzanne Collins.

****SPOILER ALERT

Ch. 16: “For a moment, everything seems frozen in time. Then the apples spill to the ground and I’m blown backward into the air.”

Ch. 9: When Peeta is on camera talking about the girl he’s had a crush on since childhood and Caesar hints that if Peeta wins the games and goes home this girl will leap into his arms. The last paragraphs of the chapter (and section) end with Peeta telling Caesar in front of the world (and Katniss), 

“I don’t think it’s going to work out. Winning . . . won’t help in my case . . . because . . . she came here with me.”


End of chapter. End of section one.

Who in there right mind isn’t going to turn those pages? Suzanne Collins is the master of ending chapters. But she’s also the master of starting them.

If the next chapters launched into a description of the capital’s flowers blooming in the spring, or a fancy, colorful dessert being offered to the tributes, we might have set the book down and gone to bed like normal, responsible people. But no. That first sentence of the next chapter tells us exactly what we need to know: Our hearts can’t stop pounding quite yet. The ride isn’t over.

Ch. 17: “The impact with the hard-packed earth of the plain knocks the wind out of me.”

Ch. 10: “For a moment, the cameras hold on Peeta’s downcast eyes as what he says sinks in. Then I can see my face, mouth half open in a mix of surprise and protest, magnified on every screen as I realize, Me! He means me!” 

Before you know it as a reader, you are flipping through pages without any idea where a chapter starts or ends because here is the secret, Suzanne Collins cheats. Yep. Absolutely completely cheats. Those two examples weren’t chapter breaks. They weren’t even page-break worthy. They were separate paragraphs at best. And it works. You’re so desperate to find out what happens, you forget to sleep, dress yourself, or feed your kids, and finish the book in a day.

So back to my point. I think many authors have caught onto the last sentence cliff hanger idea. I tried that trick early on. But it took me a few years and a stiff comment made by a dear friend to realize my beginning sentences were severely lacking. I got the reader to turn the page but lost them in the first few words of the next chapter, because let’s face it, they were tired and their kids (and own selves) needed food.

Not my concern. And if you’re an author, it’s not yours either.

Sounds heartless, I know. But every author’s job is to make readers forget their life (however wonderful or horrid) for just a few moments, hours, or even days. That’s why we read. To escape. To pretend we don’t have 30 loads of laundry waiting for us, our boyfriend didn’t just dump us, or we’re stuck in a low-paying job with no end in sight. Reading is escaping. Yes, it’s learning too, but that’s secondary. Escape. Pretend. Find a happy ending that often doesn’t exist in real life.

So…how are your first sentences? 

Do your readers HAVE to turn the page? If so, what will they find?



Before my little episode with my daughter yesterday, I forgot to guard my beginnings. So I will throw them out to you without editing, because that would be cheating, and while I plan to cheat soon, I won’t right now just to self-check. Here are the first sentences of my current work in progress, a sequel to Sadie, tentatively entitled, Augustina. 

Ch 1: “The funeral of Sarah Augustina Dawson was held on a Thursday, in the church her mother attended for thirty-five years.”  I’m smiling as I type, because I love that opening. A funeral. Of the main character. Call me crazy. :)  

Moving on.

End of Ch 3: “I can’t do this anymore,” she whispered. She grabbed her crutches and stumbled out the door.” Not bad. 

Start of Ch 4: “The winding roads from Kalispell to Missoula were icy and slow, elongating the already long two hour drive.” Eh. I was bored copying it for all of you. Not a good sign. Needs work.

End of Ch 5: He slid his hand into hers and said, “Okay. We’re ready.””  Okay, I guess. I’m hoping readers will want to find out what they’re ready for. 

Start of Ch 6: “Things are going well, Mr. Vasquez. The markets are turning around.”  This one probably means nothing to you unless you’ve read Sadie, but this is the first we’ve seen Guillermo (the bad guy) since the end of book 1. I’m hoping the reader will be desperate to know where he is and what he’s up to, so I think it works.

Okay, I looked for others, but most involve spoilers. I think you get the gist, though. So here’s my challenge. Let us see your first lines. Whether that’s the first line of your book or just a chapter, wow us. Or even just throw it out there to see it for yourself, separated from the rest of your amazing words. An honest look. And if you’re extra daring, throw in the last line of the previous chapter as well. In return, I’m hoping you will comment on the previous commentator’s lines (nicely) and maybe even offer a suggestion if you think you can help (nice suggestion). 

Let me restate for clarification. First person to comment can comment on my lines and then share their own. After that, just comment on the one above you. Or, if you want to just quote your favorite first lines of any book you’ve read, that works, too. 

How does that sound? Let’s try it. 






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Author: Rebecca Belliston @rlbelliston

Hopeless romantic and author of CITIZENS OF LOGAN POND, SADIE and AUGUSTINA. Music nerd and composer of RELIGIOUS and CLASSICAL-STYLE music. I live in Michigan with my husband and five kids.

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