I’ve been doing a lot of critique recently and have been thinking a lot about first lines. Not just opening paragraphs and pages (we just did a workshop series on that, check it out by clicking on the workshop tag), but first lines in particular.
To drive the point home, I think I’m going to scout some killer first lines and make up some that don’t work so well next week. For the time being, here’s the note I’ve been giving out most often in my critiques, and it’s something for you to think about:
This could be the first line to any book.
When do I give this note? When I read a first line and don’t immediately understand something specific about a character or a world. When it really could go anywhere from the first line and make sense. This is a possibility when the first line is general enough, lacking detail, overly philosophical, or focused on description instead of character or action. The first line is, in a word, vague.
Here’s an example of a vague first line:
It was the summer before everything changed.
It’s a pretty okay line, by most standards. There’s tension implied — we are about to see a change, and change usually brings conflict with it. The reader also knows more than, we suppose, the characters, because we know there will be change, but it hasn’t happened in the plot yet. Not bad. I wouldn’t kick this first line out of slush.
But it could be stronger. For example, let’s give it the vague test. Could it be the opening to any story? Yes. Let’s take a look. It could be a…
It was the summer before everything changed. Back when the Zorlots were still in control of the ship, and the clones had yet to run amok.
It was the summer before everything changed. Before that yeller-bellied Winchester rolled on into town.
It was the summer before everything changed. The count hadn’t yet seduced Mistress Nancy and quite literally lost his head.
I think you get it. (And by “it,” here, I mean you get that I can’t really write genre to save my yeller-bellied hide.) It’s a strong line, but is it your first line? A distinctive, specific first line that can only be the first line to your book and no other? That’s what I think you should be shooting for.