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Great First Line Workshop

This first line comes by way of a freelance editorial client and is used with her permission. It’s not often that I showcase client work but I just had to talk about this line and what makes it such a grabber:

If a tree falls in the woods…Zeke backed his bike into a stand of mountain laurel… and no one hears it….He stood motionless…is it still a crime?

First, some context. This is a MG story dealing with some environmental topics. In this scene, the main character, Zeke, witnesses some vandals felling a very old tree with an active eagle’s nest on top. You get some of this in the line itself, but since you don’t have the benefit of a query or synopsis, I wanted to fill in the rest. Also, for the sake of clarity, italics indicate verbatim thoughts. You can see here that we’re in third person but we’re still getting interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) from Zeke because the writer has chosen to interject them. The italics keep everything from running together.

What works here for me? First lines need to grab. One way to do that is to turn something familiar on its head. This is done here with the old “If a tree falls in the forest” phrase. Instead of being a serene mind puzzle, this cliché becomes new and edgy by introducing the idea of a crime happening. Great!

There’s also tension in what Zeke is doing. It’s obvious from how he backs away from the scene and stands motionless that he’s not supposed to be there. Whether he’s a participant regretting his involvement and attempting to run or whether he’s a passerby stumbling onto something sinister, we don’t know yet, but there’s certainly an element of added danger: He is not like the people committing the crime, and that makes him vulnerable. The stakes rise.

Finally, there’s the simple idea of starting in action. We’re right there in the moment. We get the character’s thoughts (internal conflict) and the character’s physical situation (external conflict) in one sentence. There’s no introduction, no easing into the moment. (“Zeke did what he always did when he couldn’t sleep: he snuck away to visit the eagle’s nest. But this early morning, something was different. He drew nearer and heard a peculiar sound. Chainsaws. He peeked through the underbrush to find…” blah blah blah blah blah) Instead we are thrust into things and we have to catch up but–and this is important–without being disoriented. There’s a mystery (Who is doing this? Why? What’s he doing there?) but we have enough information still that we can attach ourselves to an instant story.

Great stuff, overall! There’s one way this misses, though, and it’s in the follow-up. I use the next line in the manuscript with the author’s permission as well:

But he’d heard it. The sounds of the ruckus – the chainsaw, the muffled cheers, and the thud of the tree – still sent reverberations from his brain to his spine.

If a tree falls in the woods, let us actually hear it in the moment instead of introducing the event, skipping past it, and giving us the protagonist recalling it in compressed narration. Instead of The Event that we’ve been primed to expect, the tree falling is reduced to a list of fleeting images. The reaction to the event is till there but…no event. You should never make a big deal about something (making it the subject of your first line is an Automatic Big Deal) only to discount it soon after. This client doesn’t lose all the tension she created for herself but there’s an automatic deflation when we go from “in the moment” to “wow, that moment was intense but we skipped right over it.”

The bottom line: Grab the reader but make sure you have the follow-through to capitalize on what you’ve created. Otherwise, it’s like setting the stage and turning the lights on only to have the curtain fall. My thanks to Debbie for letting me use her as a guinea pig. A lot to unpack in two short sentences!

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  1. Christina C.’s avatar

    What I really like about this first line is that although there is action, it’s not a huge chase scene with the vandals running after him trying to catch him. It’s quiet but there’s so much tension in what he’s seeing and thinking that it does so much more than having him whiz through the forest on his bike trying to escape. And we get his opinion on what happens through his interiority. Which means we already like the character.

    In terms of what comes next, would a fairly good and easy fix be showing him actually witnessing it, with the noise and eagles screeching and him hiding in the bushes with his bike?

    This is an awesome way to analyze first lines. It would be great if more of your clients want to offer their WIP for this kind of workshop, or about other topics :)

    Thank you to the author! It sounds like a wonderful story – I’d keep reading!!

  2. erin’s avatar

    Many thanks to the author for sharing. That first line is definitely a grabber, and it’s interesting to read an analysis of exactly why it works. Seeing the follow-up line is helpful as well and a great reminder not to let that tension slip away so easily. Wonderful. Thanks!

  3. Tom M.’s avatar

    Isn’t this first line a cheat? It’s really three lines strung together with ellipses, right? And what about not starting with dialogue? I’d think direct italicized thoughts would be the same as dialogue.

  4. Greg Pattridge’s avatar

    Very interesting and well thought out first line. Demonstrates how the first line, first paragraph, first page, all have to work together. Thanks for sharing.

  5. fashionistaphilly.tumblr.org’s avatar

    loved that first sentence. Taking that quote and changing it arround but drawing the reader in was brilliant loved it!

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