It never hurts to make a good first impression. Bad impressions generally get you hit over the head with a beer bottles and rudely shoved out the door of your favorite watering hole. Since this blog is about writing and all writers want to make a good impression, we’ll be discussing my favorite first impression.
The first line of a book is your first impression. It’s the first taste a reader will get of your book. After honing my scan of a first paragraph, I’ve come to judge books by their first page and rarely by their covers. Sure, the cover sparks my interest, but if the first page makes me yawn, I slap it back on the shelf and mentally berate artists everywhere for tricking me. I grew up devouring books with covers by Boris, Frazetta and the Hildebrant Brothers, so I’m no stranger to picking up books based on cover art. It serves its purpose if the artist knows what they’re doing.
But, it’s up to me as an author to draw you past a cover with my writing skills. If you, or me, as a writer can’t back up that cover, we need to rethink a career in writing. That first line thing goes for chapters too. I’m also a big believer in last lines. The final line of a chapter should make you speed turn the page to find out what happens next. Most of the time, you have something to back that up, but not all chapters can leave you breathless. Some have to further the story in more mundane ways. But, this isn’t about last lines. It’s about first lines.
To illustrate my point, I’m going to use one of my favorite first lines from one of my books. This one is from Love at First Stake.
“Madam, are you aware you just shoved a sizable stake through my heart!”
Okay, see what I did there? That one line informed the reader of two things. A. This book is about Vampires. B. This book just might be funny. Now, let’s see what tone I’d set if I went a different way.
Her fist came down, slamming the ash hewn stake through the bloodsucker’s heart.
That sets a totally different tone. A. We still know it’s about Vampires. B. This book just might get gory and more serious than I intended. Another thing. It’s kind of boring. How many times have you read a vampire novel that is all about the mythology and mired in clichés? Love Bites was intended to be a different take on Vampires. A funny take. Something to set it apart from the horde of vampire books out on the shelves already. Hopefully, I succeeded in drawing in readers with that first line and keeping them entertained long enough to keep reading to the end.
One more first line. This is from Were Love Blooms.
Not to sound totally insane, but how much wax does it take to do a bikini line when you’re a freaking werewolf?
Again, I’ve defined the subject matter and tone of the book in a comical way. We immediately know the main character is a werewolf and none too happy about the fact. By the way, if anyone can answer that question for me I’d really like to know how much it takes. I might not be a werewolf, but I’m quite hairy.
But, I digress. This blog is about writing, not my follicle issues.
If you’ve been following this blog series, you’ve got a grasp on the concept that characters and plot are your first concerns. Once you know both of those things, you can get to the fun stuff. And, that’s the real point of writing. Having fun doing it. If you see it as work, it’ll come across as work. Nobody likes work, least of all readers. We read to escape work, life and stress in general.
I’m in no way saying comedy is everyone’s favorite, but the first line first impression works no matter what genre you’re writing. Let me show you. This is from a current work in progress that I’ve been playing around with in my spare time. Ha! What spare time? Please forgive the language, but sometimes situations dictate a harsh response, especially if you’re dealing with a harsh type of character. The name of this work is Shadick’s Brand.
“Son of a bitch!” Jace Shadick let the curse roll across his lips, as he saw the plume of smoke painting the dusty blue sky.
What does the first line tell you? Probably not a comedy. Something bad just happened. Something worse is probably going to happen. The title of the book hints that it’s a Western, so I tailored his speech and the visual description to mirror his environment and times. Not only does the first line give you his frame of mind, but it allows you a look into the world around him. Dusty blue sky equals cloudy day. The smoke gives you an idea that a tragedy has occurred. The curse tells you it is something he doesn’t want to deal with. That’s a lot for a line to tell you. More importantly, does it make you want to read more? Feel free to tell me the truth. I would appreciate it.
What can we bring away from all this? First lines are windows to your book. It’s a hook to make a reader want to read more. The impact defines the tone of a book. A single line can give a complete overview of what a reader can expect. Finally, if you’re doing it right, first lines can be fun.
So next time you sit down to write, consider how important that first impression is. From there it’s up to you to either totally kill it, or get hit with a beer bottle. Figuratively of course. But, if it were me, I’d try to kill it, just in case. Beer bottles really hurt.