Writing that first line is hard. There’s all that pressure to hook the reader and rules on what not to do. Of course, I wasn’t familiar with these rules when I started my novel so, in addition to sharing the top five worst ways to start your novel, I’ll provide examples of how I’ve committed each of these sins in early drafts of my current WIP Pup.
1. Don’t start with your characters waking up!
EXAMPLE: The alarmed sounded and I smacked the snooze button before pulling my comforter over my head and returning to my dream—something about bunnies. Or was it sheep? I don’t know. I can never remember my dreams.
WHY THIS SUCKS: No one wants to read about someone getting up, making their coffee and starting their day. Alfred Hitchcock said, “drama is life with the boring parts cut out.” Get to the action already! Unless your character is waking up and realizing that they’ve turned into a giant cockroach as in Kafka’s The Metamorphoses, no one will want to read about it.
2. Don’t start with a dream!
EXAMPLE: I was enjoying the remnants of a dream, grasping onto what I could remember, willing myself back into that world. The images had begun to flit away from me like so many Polaroid pictures in the breeze.
WHY THIS SUCKS: Would you care if someone you’ve never met told you about their dream? No. Your readers haven’t been properly introduced to your character, so why the Hell would they care about her dream. This becomes a double-sin if you start with a dream and don’t make it abundantly clear. If you describe a dream in the first paragraph and reveal afterward that none of what you described actually happened, your readers are going to want to smack you.
3. Don’t start with dialogue!
EXAMPLE: “Morning Time,” called the tiny cherub bouncing beside me. I hid my face under my pillow, “it’s too early, baby. Go back to sleep.” I sighed and pressed my eyelids closed.
WHY THIS SUCKS: Sometimes this works. Sometimes. The problem with starting with dialogue is that there is no sense of character or setting. Your readers want to know who is speaking, where they’re at and why it matters right up front. Readers are greedy little bastards. They want it all and if you want to keep their attention, you better give it to them.
4. Don’t start too early!
EXAMPLE: I could hear fireworks outside. I wanted to step out and have a cigarette while I watched the festivities from my back porch. Instead, I grabbed a mystery flavored Dum-Dum sucker and stood in the sliding glass doorway. My resolution was to kick my smoking habit and I was going to make it stick. I popped the Dum-Dum in my mouth. It was root beer flavored. Happy New Year.
WHY THIS SUCKS: I call this premature plotulation. Start your novel at that point where the story starts to get good. Start with action, tension, conflict. Readers want to know that your book is worth their time so grab them with that first line. Strap them in and give them no choice but to read the next line and the next and the one after that. Never give them the option of putting your book down. Start as far into your story as you can without confusing your reader. Don’t let your readers dip their toe into your story. Throw them into the deep end and make them swim!
5. Don’t start with backstory!
EXAMPLE: Lousiana Channing had gone by many names. The first, her birth name, she viewed as a signature of her mom’s carelessness. Her mom admitted that she hadn’t given the name much thought until after Louisiana, or Louie as she preferred to be called, was born.
WHY THIS SUCKS: Force-feeding your reader backstory up front is like making your toddler eat lima beans. Let your reader come to the backstory on their own. Drop it in bit-by-bit, mix it in their mashed potatoes if you have to. In fact, try to avoid backstory all together in your first chapter or two. Once your reader is hooked, they will be much more inclined to want to learn more about the characters and then you can fill them in.
Knowing when it’s okay to break the rules
There are exceptions to the rules. There always are. The key to breaking the rules is conviction. You need to know what you’re doing and have a damn good reason for it. You can’t be a Rebel Writer Without A Cause (although that does sound pretty badass). You need a cause and that cause must be in the best interest of your story.
For instance, The Hunger Games starts with Katniss waking up and going about her day. Even in this great novel, I found waking up to be a slow start, but for the most part it worked because of something I like to call the WTF element. The WTF element is exactly what it sounds like. It is something in the opening that pushes the reader to want to know what the Hell is going on. In The Hunger Games, it is the mention of the reaping at the end of the first paragraph. As readers, we want to know what the reaping is and why it’s giving Katniss’s little sister nightmares.
One of my favorite WTF opening lines is from George Orwell’s 1984: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” WTF? Clocks don’t strike thirteen? What the Hell is going on here? If we want to find out, we’ll have to read on. Pure genius.
Now I need your help
I’m revising the second draft of my novel. Knowing how important that first line is, I want to make sure I get it right. The current first line of my horror novel Pup is:
It wasn’t the wolf that alarmed Louie Channing, it was the little girl in the blood-soaked dress.
Does this line make you want to read on? What do you think of it? Leave me a comment below with your thoughts.