Today I’m looking into great one-liners, and no, I don’t mean pick-up lines, I mean the first sentence of your manuscript. What if your manuscript was judged solely on your first line? (Ack! Scary, right?) Would you make the grade? What works? What doesn’t? I’m sure there’s tons of great advice out there on how to compose a great first sentence. Much like the opening line of your query letter, it needs to be eye-catching and showcase your style. So as research, I hauled a whole bunch of YA books off my shelf for some good old investigation. Later, (after a few drinks,) I’m going to open up all of my manuscripts and give you the first lines. Then I’ll judge myself as well. And I heard somewhere that you’re your own worst critic, so we’ll see if I survive!
**I’d just like to point out that all of these books are young adult. I think that’s important.
On the top of the pile we have Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling. (Fantasy)
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
I love this first line and not just because I’ve read the entire Harry Potter series. I think it’s very sarcastic and captures your attention right away. Why, what do you mean they’re perfectly normal? What is “perfectly normal,” after all? Well played, Ms. Rowling. Grade: A+
Tithe by Holly Black (Fantasy)
“Kaye took another drag on her cigarette and dropped it into her mother’s beer bottle.”
The first time I read this book, I was expecting typical YA, something meek and mild that skirts around major issues that teenagers face, but that first line really says it all. Kaye is smoking, her mother is drinking. This first line shows me the grittiness that follows in Tithe. I also think it shows the absolute nonchalance to the awful lifestyle she leads with her mother. Grade: I give it an A.
Incarceron by Catherine Fisher (Steampunk)
“Finn had been flung on his face and chained to the stone slabs of the transitway.”
This one is a bit trickier. For one, it follows the typical Steampunk verbiage in that it uses way too many words. It doesn’t really give me any sort of emotion since I don’t really know who Finn is yet, though I am curious as to why he’s chained on the transitway (not that I know what a transitway is). It’s not my favorite first line. Grade: B-
The Host by Stephenie Meyer (Sci-fi)
“The Healer’s name was Fords Deep Waters.”
I remember reading that first line and thinking “What the hell kind of name is that? What the hell, Stephenie, where’s Edward?” But…on closer inspection, it’s a great way to show the sci-fi nature of the book. How many people do you know that go by a name like Fords Deep Waters? I’m guessing none. All in all, it’s a success in setting up the book. Grade: A
Flip by Martyn Bedford (Sci-fi/fantasy)
“Alex couldn’t have said what woke him in that morning.”
This is a terrible first line to what is otherwise a very good book (that I really enjoyed). This gives me nothing. It doesn’t have emotion, it doesn’t hint at the general voice of the book. Nothing. Blah. Don’t do it. Grade: D (And that’s generous.)
Marked by P.C. and Kristin Cast (Fantasy)
“Just when I thought my day couldn’t get any worse I saw the dead guy standing next to my locker.”
Yes! That’s what I’m talking about. Suddenly I’m having a bad day and there’s a dead guy at my locker. Wait, what? Dead guy? I’m so in. Plus Zoey talks like this the entire book, so it leads right in to her bubbly voice. Grade: A+
Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick (Fantasy)
“I walked into biology and my jaw fell open.”
This is a ho-hum sentence. All I can think is I don’t care!! Where Ms. Fitzpatrick finds her gusto is in the second sentence, which is, “Mysteriously adhered to the chalkboard was a Barbie doll, with Ken at her side.” My advice? Nix the first sentence, start with the second which is scandalous sounding and takes me right back to sex-ed. Grade: F (And only because she had that second, much improved sentence sitting right there and she didn’t use it!)
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Sci-fi)
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”
So it’s not the best first sentence ever, but it’s not the worst either. It shows us that the main character cares for someone, and that someone is not where they should be. It’s decidedly sad without even trying that hard. Grade: I give it a B.
Divergent by Veronica Roth (Sci-fi/fantasy)
“There is one mirror in my house.”
This sentence is…bland. It carries a little interest in that only having one mirror is a little strange, but not enough that I’d freak out on you. Knowing that the rest of the book is freaking amazing, I won’t judge too harshly. I would’ve like a bit more. Grade: C
Tempest by Julie Cross (Sci-fi)
“How far back should I go?” I asked Adam.
This is another one of those indecisive sentences. It could mean like whoa! Time travel! Or it could be how far back should I look into this person’s history to support my pseudo-stalker habits? It has intrigue, for sure. Grade: I give it an B+.
Now it’s time for the real fun! The following are my first sentences. I’m actually pretty worried about this…
Antithesis by umm, me. (Sci-fi)
“Reality flickered at the edge of my vision, bright and painfully demanding.”
I have to say, it’s just okay. Because you don’t know that “reality” is punny, it doesn’t ring out as awesome. It’s well-written, but doesn’t give any insight into the story or Gavyn’s personality. Grade: Sigh. I give myself a C.
Through the Reflection Pond also by me (Fantasy)
“I picked up my pace as I rounded the ramshackle house and exploded into the street.”
This one is okay as well. The main character is running, which makes me think she’s either running from or to someone. I also like the use of “ramshackle,” it’s tangible kind of word that gives you a nice mental picture. Grade: B-
Stepping Stones (you’re seeing a trend. I wrote this one, too.) (Fantasy Romance)
“Dawn broke across the sky, streaking it pink and orange as Onna pushed the engine of her G6 harder than she ever had before.”
I like and dislike this sentence with equal measure. I like the description of the sky and the impression that I get that she’s running from something. It has emotion, though I’m not quite sure what that emotion is. She’s in a hurry, but is it to or from something? Apparently it’s a running theme in my first sentences. Grade: B
Untitled (This is a project that has yet to be titled or finished, but I like the first sentence.) (Fantasy Romance)
“Whoever decided that my life should be irrevocably changed on a Monday was a cruel person.”
This sentence has all the important ingredients. It gets us inside our main character’s head. She’s not just having a bad day, she’s having a life-changing day. And even so, it shows hints of humor in her voice. Grade: A (Yay! I finally got an A!)
NaNoWriMo (This is the project I worked on for NaNo in 2011. Also untitled and unfinished and shelved. Oh, the life of a writer.) (Fantasy)
“I stumbled and fell hard onto my bed; it accepted me with a short, angry squeak.”
I dig personifying objects, so the second half of the sentence works for me. The first part leaves me wondering why the character fell. Was she pushed? Did she pass out drunk? Is she about to get it on? (Oh yeah, I went there, and only I know the answer.) Grade: A
Whew! I survived the massacre of my own work and came out smiling. I hope you find this entry as helpful as I did. Once you’ve made it past the first sentence, there’s still an entire manuscript to address. Each sentence is as equally important as the last, so I hope you’ll ask yourself if each and every sentence is the best it could possibly be.
After all, the first sentence of a book is like the opening line of song. If it’s good, it’ll stick with the reader long after she puts the book down. Just like when you hear “Just a small town girl…” Everyone knows exactly where we’re going and how great of a journey it’ll be. (Haha, I’m so witty.) So ask yourself, what does my first line tell about my story? Does it give emotion? Does it give mood? Does it set up my story?
So what are your favorite first lines? Do you want my grade on yours? Leave me some comments.
All the best,