Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Famous First Words

Last month Suey and I went to a writing critique group, and one of the biggest things we heard was that a story need conflict.

Conflict, conflict, conflict. 

image source

In the first chapter, in the first pages, in the first sentence. But I was doubtful. So I've been looking at first chapters and first sentences ever since. And I wanted to share some from a few of my favorite books:

A secret is a strange thing.
-The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

Here is everything I know about France: Madeline and Amelie and Moulin Rouge.
-Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Prayer candles flicker in my bedroom.
-The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

My father took one hundred and thirty-two minutes to die.
-Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

There was a boy in her room.
-Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

First the colors.
-The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

They called the world beyond the walls of the Pod "the Death Shop."
-Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

If I'm being totally honest, some of those first lines are way better than others. 

And, I think the difference might be conflict. Or, at least the sense that you are in the middle of something that is interesting. If your dad is dying, or there are strange secrets going on, I want to know more. Not all these first lines make me want to know more. But, at the same time, these are all books I really enjoyed by the last page.

So I'm curious, what hooks you when you start a new book? How soon do you need conflict in your story?


  1. I have ambivalence about first lines.

    I'm not saying they're NOT important... I'm just saying I think too many people give them too much importance. Like you said, some of those first lines are way better than others, and I've read books with first lines that aren't anything special at all.

    I like what Howard Taylor says: Your first sentence is a promise you're making to your reader. The rest of the book has to deliver on that promise.

    1. Interesting! I'll have to think about that Howard Taylor quote some more, at least in relation to what I'm working on right now. :)

  2. I think first lines are highly overrated. I've written my share of stories over the years and while some of the openers were good, the bad ones didn't take away from the overall feel of the story.

    1. That's a good point. How soon does a story have to get good/interesting for you to be willing to keep going?

  3. IMO, typically the earlier the conflict is evident in the story, the more direction the plot is given. But that said, since I tend toward contemps that focus on the MCs whining about boys, I think I'm willing to wait a lot longer for the main conflict to be revealed because what hooks me is the narrative voice. But in genres that are more action-based, like dystopian or fantasy, I think I like it better when the conflicts are introduced earlier.

    1. That's interesting, about early conflict giving the plot direction. I never thought of it that way, but that feels right to me. And that's a good point about character driven vs. plot driven stories. (Although Jellicoe Road is pretty character driven and I love the opening line. It just doesn't seem to relate to the rest of the story for another 100 pages...) :)

  4. Awesome post. And yes, I've been thinking about and noticing first lines much more too. Still, not sure a first line can have a conflict. At least, not always. Anyway, I changed my first line to try and do this, and I'm sure you're dying to hear what it is!

    1. I am! I agree not everything can have conflict in the first line. Especially if it's just for the sake of shock or attention, and not really related to the story.

  5. I guess you can definitely have a great first line where you go "woah!" and want to learn more, are totally intrigued, etc... but I think it's more about the first paragraph, or even the first page. It's about giving readers a sense of your writing style, and yes, I think setting up some form of conflict for the book, whether it's the main conflict or not. For me it's about something interesting happening, but more important than that even, is the voice of the main character, giving me a hint of how they think, what their outlook is. First lines can be important, but I don't think they're the *most* important thing.

  6. Oh I'm with you. I love a good strong opening line.