By Peggy Morehouse
Why is Snoopy working so hard on the first line of his book? Is it really that important?
Here’s how literary agent, Michelle L. Johnson answers that question in an interview on Chasing the Crazies blog, “I can’t stress enough how important it is to give a great first line. A good first line should catch the reader off guard and set up the tone of the book.”
Like Snoopy, writers trying to break into the publishing industry are acutely aware about the significance of an extraordinary beginning to their story. Literary agents receive between 100-to-200 query letters per week from debut authors seeking their representation. Most agents sign-on between two and ten new clients each year, and the vast majority of publishers won’t look at an author’s book without that agent.
Yup! It’s competitive in the book world. That’s why a writer has to grab an agent’s attention with the first line. Talk about pressure. You could have written the next Gone with the Wind, but without a sizzling opening a potential bestseller could be tossed in a slush pile.
What makes a great first line? Lucy told Snoopy to use, “Once upon a time.”
What does Michelle Johnson say? “The most important thing to me is to connect with the main character. If I care about the character quickly and deeply and that character feels real to me, I will want to read the entire book. If the character is intriguing but the writing not polished, it will quickly eliminate my desire to read on.”
Let’s see how some recent bestsellers from my bookshelf start:
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: “When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.”
Wild by Cheryl Strayed: “My solo three month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail had many beginnings.”
The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline: “Through her bedroom wall Molly can hear her foster parents talking about her in the living room.”
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce: “The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday.”
The first thing that came to mind about these beginnings is originality. I haven’t read lines like this before, so I’m assuming the author is creative. The second thing is I find myself asking why.
- Why does the man (Nick) in Gone Girl think of his wife’s head when he first looks at her?
- Why did Cheryl Strayed’s trek have many beginnings?
- Why is Molly in foster care and what are her foster parents saying?
- Why did the letter change everything for Harold Fry?
These authors have enticed me to move on to line two. Hopefully, the intrigue will continue to the end (and it did for me in all of the above books).
Some of the best beginnings I’ve come across haven’t been in books, however. They’re hiding in country songs. Check out these opening lines:
“In a bar in Toledo, across from the depot, on a bar stool she took off her ring.” from Lucille by Kenny Rogers.
“Fifteen minutes left to throw me together for Mr. Right Now, not Mr. Forever.” from Settlin’ by Surgarland.
“I’m on the side of the road with a car that won’t go and the night won’t even give me a moon.” Brokedown Cadillac by Brokedown Cadillac.
If those lines were written at the start of a book, I’d be instantly hooked. Instead of Lucy telling Snoopy to begin with Once upon a time, she should have advised him to turn on the radio. Lots of powerful examples are just a song away.
What are some of your favorite opening lines from either a book or a song? Did the remainder of the story live up to the expectation?