First Impressions with First Lines

Once upon a time. . .

it was tradition to begin a story with those words. Today, making first impressions with first lines is a skill all authors need.

Today’s reader will accept the “once upon a time” opening only for a certain type of story. Other types of stories need a different style of opening. But regardless of the genre or style of fiction, the beginningMaking first Impressions with First lines is a skill all authors need. Explore first lines with me. of the book is critical. In fact, often readers will pick up a book at the library or store and read the first few paragraphs before taking the book home. If the first lines grab the reader, the book goes home. On the other hand, if the first lines of the book make the reader go ‘bleh ‘ the book is put down and never opened again.

If you ‘ve written and rewritten first lines and first chapters of your book, trying to achieve that perfect first impression and are still struggling to create a great opening, it ‘s time to step away from the manuscript for a little study session.

Studying First Lines

For our purposes here, I ‘m going to arbitrarily define the opening of the story as the first 100 words. In my personal quest for a great opening, I chose to study the first five pages of ten favorite novels. Obviously, the first five pages of ten different novels would make a very long post. So today we ‘ll stick to just two examples.

Below are the openings of two of my favorite novels. Take a moment and read them, three times. Read once as a reader. Next, read it aloud. Finally, read it as a writer.


by Frank Herbert, Ace Books 1965

In the weeks before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.
It was a warm night at Castle Caladan, and the ancient pile of stone that had served the Atreides family as home for twenty-six generations bore that cooled-sweat feeling it acquired before a change in the weather.
The old woman was let in by the side door down the vaulted passage by Paul’s room and she was allowed a moment to peer in at him where he lay in his bed.

In three lines of Dune, Frank Herbert has given us a location, a life-changing event, the main character, and a mysterious presence. He created tension, a sense of foreboding, and a sense that something momentous is about to happen. Are you hooked? I sure am.

Read this passage aloud. Notice the rhythm, the cadence of his words. Notice the sound and feel of the words: Arrakis, scurrying, crone, Castle Caladan, ancient, Atreides.

Notice it’s final scurrying and unbearable frenzy. Did you catch the references to change? What else did you notice?

Okay. Let’s try another passage from another book.

Seventh Son

by Orson Scott Card, Tor 1987

Little Peggy was very careful with the eggs. She rooted her hand through the straw till her fingers bumped something hard and heavy. She gave no never mind to the chicken drips. After all, when folk with babies stayed at the roadhouse, Mama never even crinkled her face at their most spetackler diapers. Even when the chicken drips were wet and stringy and made her fingers stick together, little Peggy gave no never mind. She just pushed the straw apart, wrapped her hand around the egg, and lifted it out of the brood box. All this while standing tiptoe on a wobbly stool, reaching high above her head.

In this 108 words by Orson Scott Card there is a strong sense of character, of the roadhouse, of the society in which little Peggy lives. I like Peggy. Do you? Do you want to know more about her? Can you feel the straw and the sticky eggs? Can you see the wobbly stool with little Peggy reaching for the nests? Do you want to know what happens next?

Now, look for what each of the opening passages above have in common. Both of the examples have a strong sense of character, of place, and each evoke a mood that promises something is about to happen.

Armed with this information I can now go back to my manuscript. I know the elements I need in my story and I can re-craft my opening to make the first words count.

Your turn–Making First Impressions with First Lines

Copy the openings of your favorite books into your word processor or journal or onto a piece of paper. Study those openings.

Read the passages aloud. Listen to the cadence, the rhythm of the words. Look for character, place, time, mood, and foreshadowing. Notice words that pique your interest.

While reading the beginning lines of one of your favorites, ask yourself questions about each individual passage. Why this character? Why this location? Why now? How does it make me feel?

Then return to your manuscript. Look for what it has in common with your favorite books. Strength those things and I’ll bet you will have a much stronger beginning. In fact, you may even craft first lines that your reader will favorite.

Thank you for reading. I’d love to hear from you. Won’t you share examples of authors making first impressions with first lines?

Do the Pros Measure Up to the Lucky 7 Meme?

I had a lot of fun with the Lucky 7 Meme that swept through the blogosphere not too long ago, but it made me think. Would the blogging game work for published work?  In other words, do the Pros measure up? Remember, you go to page 77, down 7 lines, and share 7 lines or paragraphs. Granted, the page numbers and line numbers would be different than on manuscript pages, but I could not let it go. I had to see how some of my favorites measured up. So, for this post, I chose five different science fiction books one each by Frank Herbert, Orson Scott Card, Madeleine L’Engle, Dean R. Koontz, and Margaret Atwood.

Cover of Dune by Frank Herbert,
Dune by Frank Herbert

“There are men in the great hall say they’ve been sent by the Duke to get young master Paul,” Mapes said. “They’ve the ducal signet and the guard has identified them.” She glanced at the door, back to Jessica.
A cautious one, this Mapes, Jessica thought. That’s a good sign.
“He’s in the fifth room from this end of the hall, the small bedroom,” Jessica said. “If you have trouble waking him, call in Dr. Yueh in the next room. Paul may require a wakeshot.”

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Ender wanted to hit them, to throw them in the brook. Instead, he walked into the forest. He found a path, which soon became an ancient brick road, much overgrown with weeds but still useable. There were hints of possible games off to either side, but Ender followed none of them. He wanted to see where the path led.
It led to a clearing, with a well in the middle, and a sign that said, “Drink, Traveler.”

A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Her heart tried to beat; it gave a knifelike, sideways movement but it could not expand.
But then she seemed to hear a voice, or if not a voice, at least words, words flattened out like printed words on paper, “Oh, no! We can’t stop here! This is a two-dimensional planet and the children can’t manage here!”

The Watchers by Dean R. Koontz

After finishing the job at the Yarbeck house, he had screwed a fresh silencer onto the barrel, one of the new short ones that, thanks to the high-tech revolution, was half the length of the older models. He set the gun aside.
He had a six-inch switchblade knife. He put it in the right front pocket of his trousers.
When he had wound the wire garotte into a tight coil, he tucked it into the left inside pocket of his jacket.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I’m taken to the doctor’s office once a month, for tests: urine, hormones, cancer smear, blood tests; the same as before, except that now it’s obligatory.
The doctor’s office is in a modern office building, we ride up the elevator, silently, the Guardian facing me. In the black-mirror wall of the elevator, I can see the back of his head. At the office itself, I go in; he waits, outside in the hall, with the other Guardians, on one of the chairs placed there for that purpose.

That was fun! Now for the hard part.

Do The Pros Measure Up?

What do these widely different novel excerpts have in common with one another? One thing I can see is that each has a very strong viewpoint. Another interesting point is that each viewpoint character is doing something, acting on something. And I am very happy to say, I think my seven lines compare favorably to theses.

What do you see that these excerpts have in common? Do you think they pass the Lucky 7 Meme test?

Everyone has incredibly busy lives. So please know that you’ve made my day by taking the time to read my post. And when you take the extra time to comment below, I am tickled and honored that you chose to spend precious minutes with me. Thank you!