Monday 21 September 2015

Notes from the Critique Group - Awesome First Lines

By Maureen Lynas

The second post highlighting literary issues raised in critique groups. This came up recently at our SCBWI BI critique group in York.

Awesome first lines

What are we aiming for?

I've written an awesome first line that will wow the agents and engage the reader.
I've written an appropriate first line that will wow the agents and engage the reader.

We've seen some amazing first lines in our critique group. Lines that have that wow factor. Lines that we've loved, admired and wished we'd written.

Unfortunately, they weren't always appropriate for the story that followed. They set a tone, an expectation, a hint of a totally different story, a totally different world, and genre. It's so easy to fall into the trap of creating a darling but a first line has a job to do so you may have to assassinate yours.

As you create or analyse your appropriately awesome first line you could think of it like a literary version of wine tasting for your reader.

J'dead, steadied his rhino and thought briefly of Ashmilla's breasts as he surveyed the bleakness that was now Utopia.
I'm getting romance, dystopia, fantasy, comedy.
Captain Rik's chocco ice cream dribbled onto the console, warp drive engaged and the g force splattered.  
I'm getting kids, space opera, quirky, comedy.
'Oh my god! I love aliens! Come here, give me a hug, you little beaut. Let's eat!'
I'm getting Australian outback, adventure, space, high peril (for the alien), tearjerker, comedy.

Try listing the flavours you want your reader to experience as you consider your opening.

Why bother? Read on.

How an appropriately awesome first line can help you, the author:
Having a first line of clarity and purpose that signposts your book can actually help you to keep on track. This is a real one I've had in my head for years. I'll share.

There's only one rule for a knut - never, ever make a giant look down.

Canute the Knut by me, Maureen Lynas

I know this book, I haven't written it yet, but I know the tone, the structure, the conflict, the protagonist, the antagonist, from just that one line. I'm getting comedy, kids, adventure, and fantasy.  I really want to write it. One day.

How a first line can help them, the reader:
A reader wants to know what they're getting in to. They're about to use their valuable time to read your book, they may even be paying money for the privilege. So a first line is a snapshot of what they will get in the rest of the book. You are creating an expectation and mustn't let them down if you want them to buy your next book.

How a first line can help them, the agent and editor:
Attracting an agent or providing your agent with an appropriately awesome first line (plus an appropriately awesome elevator pitch) is a must. Think about how your first line can be used in pitching sessions, how your editor can use it to pitch your book to sales and marketing.

There's an excellent post on Writers that identifies seven different types of first lines. I've added my suggestions for children's books here. Their post is linked below.

The Eternal Principle
Every kid is considered stupid until proven otherwise.

A statement of simple fact
Twenty pence will not buy a bike.

A statement of paired facts
I have six toes on each foot, I am not weird.

A statement of simple fact laced with significance.
Percival was not known for his bravery.

A statement to introduce voice
'I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever go to sleep!'

A statement to establish mood
A day of deepest gloom loomed ahead of me.

A statement that serves as a frame
Once upon a nightmare…

For more samples please do visit Brian A Klems and Jacob Mappel'spost

So, what would we get from your first lines? Please share below.

I'm getting - curiosity, expectation, excitement, anticipation…

Maureen Lynas blogs intermittently on her own blog which she creatively named - Maureen Lynas
She is the author of
The Action Words Reading Scheme
Florence and the Meanies
The Funeverse poetry site.


  1. Thanks, Maureen - this made me scurry back to examine the first line of my current novel. I think it's both framing and introducing voice (if I'm allowed to span more than one category). It's also a line that I've had knocking around in one form or another for five years! Funny how hard it is to let a great first line go...

  2. That is brilliant, Maureen! Actually I'm currently desperate for a first line so that I can get on with writing my next book. I seem to be frozen in the land of no ideas.

    1. I'll give you one for free Candy, so you can get started.

      In the long-lost land of Lashtash, there lived a lovely candyfloss taster named Lisabelle.

    2. Oops! I meant to check this before it went live! Phew, looks ok.

    3. Loving the alliteration, Nick.

    4. I'm not sure I can sustain a year of writing about a candy floss taster named Lisabelle!

  3. Ooo - I like this, Maureen! It really made me think about my first lines and now I'm only happy with one of them - 'Mr Spector was getting more and more see-though every day.' young/ghosty/problem? THanks!

  4. Love it! So that would be a statement of simple fact laced with significance?

  5. This is so great! genuinely inspirational - love the list of first line types - this one's a keeper!

    1. Thanks, Kathy. It was fun coming up with kids versions.

  6. Please tell me I'm not the only person who laughed all the way through this! Not that l've missed the serious message but you've framed it in a most memorable way.
    "Run, just run. Don't look back. Run. Don't think. Run."

    1. I was hoping to produce a few giggles, Gill. Thank you. I'm getting a statement to introduce voice. A character who will never give up.

  7. OK - for the first time anywhere! - the first line of Dangerous Games:

    The sky is close, so close I want to reach out and touch it.

    I'm not sure I fit in your categories: often I like first lines that intrigue, precisely because they don't tell you what kind of story it is - you have to read on to find out.

    1. ...perhaps that fits in the category of introducing voice? Though maybe the first paragraph is really needed for that?

    2. I was going for that one. You're in the protagonist's head. Lovely line. It makes me think she wants to escape.

  8. This is absolutely brilliant and so useful - thank you.And here's the first line: 'If Jakob sneezed he could die.'

    1. Brilliant, Vanessa, a statement of simple fact that opens up a threat to the protagonist. I'm thinking - why?

  9. This is really helpful - thank you. Have been pondering this for the last 2 weeks - but this is what I came up with...

    "Well, well, what have we got here? Man or monkey?"

    was aiming for danger, young, humour (dry) and a hint of my main character who is a slippery, gaunt, embittered young thief...

  10. OK, my current chapter book WIP:

    'It was just an ordinary day - until a dinosaur walked down the road.'

    1. Nice statement of paired facts there, Janet. I'm getting fun and escalating problems!

  11. Thank you Maureen! I've just made a glorious breakthrough with my latest first line. So grateful for this truly helpful and delightful post!

  12. You made me giggle, Maureen. I'll whisper this because even my publisher hasn't seen it yet: book 3 of trilogy begins:

    'On the mattress was a lot of nose and a small amount of body.'

    1. I'm getting an extremely yucky pair of facts laced with significance! I'm getting fantasy with a twist of dark humour?

  13. Manda flung her notebook onto the table, sending a shower of photocopied pages to the floor.

  14. Sorry, I posted my first line without adding a comment first. Thank you for this super helpful article. :-)


Comments are the heart and soul of the Slushpile community, thank you! We may periodically turn on comments approval when trolls appear.

Share buttons bottom