First Line Don’ts

Okay, so there are a lot of do’s and don’ts about what to use for your novel’s first line. It’s easier–and, let’s face it, more entertaining–to rattle off the don’ts. I will outline some successful first lines in a later post.

Disclaimer: These don’ts are NOT hard and fast, rigid rules. All “rules” are meant to be broken. So, consider these to be guidelines.


DON’T start with the weather. It was a dark and stormy night. Great for Snoopy, not so great for newbies. Then again, you notice he never really got beyond that line. Now we know why.

DON’T start with dialogue. “Why not?” You ask. I reply, “Eh, overdone.” You scratch your head. “But I see books start with dialogue all the time.” I say, “Yeah, but why start off with a potential demerit?” You hang your head. “Okay.” Then I whisper, “Of course, all rules are meant to be broken. If they’re broken well.”

DON’T start with a downer. “Emily was sad.” And so? Why should I keep reading? I don’t want to be sad. Geesh.

DON’T start with a dream sequence. Not only is it jarring and disappointing when the person wakes up, it’s overdone too.

DON’T start at a place of inactivity. Ex. Getting ready for the day. Waking up. On the morning commute–unless something significant happens. You know, like a semi jack-knifes inches in front of the MC’s car. Or satellite radio crashes. Oh no! No Howard Stern!!!

DON’T say everything in the first sentence. Molly wrangled her six kids at the same time the dishwasher spit out tons of suds, the dog peed on the carpet, the phone rang, the ghost of her dead sister rattled her death chains in the attic, and her husband walked in with mud all over his shoes. (Huh, well, actually, I’d want to read more about that, but anyway, back to my point…)

DON’T start the hook before the story happens. This is more tricky, but I’ve heard time and time again where writers get feedback like: “Well, the opening’s a little slow. The action really picked up at chapter 2 or 4.” Yeah, cuz the opening chapters are the warm-up. Then the flow gets better and the plot solidifies. So, when you finish your draft, be mindful of the opening chapters. If they’re “fluff” or “warm-up,” cut ’em. Start with the pertinent action.

DON’T start with a Prologue. Okay, this is a “general” idea. But if you REALLY want a Prologue, no one will stop you. Just be aware that some readers don’t like ’em. And a lot of agents don’t either. (Personally, they don’t bother me, but, well, most of the things outlined here don’t, so that just goes to show ya how subjective the business is, eh?)

DON’T let a lack of an idea for a first line stop you. Just write. You’ll see the opening line emerge quite naturally. I promise.

Go to fullsize image

I’m going to leave you with one DO. I think it kind of balances things out.

DO check out this post about “Ten rules for writing fiction.” (Thanks to Jackie Felger for re-tweeting this link!)


9 comments on “First Line Don’ts

  1. A great list! And fun examples, too.

  2. I must have edited my first line like a billion times. Fortunately I didn’t make any of these mistakes. Great post! I couldn’t stop laughing.

  3. Danyelle says:

    Great list! And I like that they’re guidelines. Rules are definitely meant to be broken–if one can do it brilliantly. 🙂 It’s interesting that some of these rules (esp weather references) used to be very popular. I have to admit that I do like the beginning of A WRINKLE IN TIME, because the storm acts as a catalyst.

    I have an award for you here:

  4. lbdiamond says:

    This was a bit of fun to write. Thanks for the positive feedback!

    Danyelle–THANK YOU for the blog award! LUV your website! 🙂

  5. Kat says:

    This list is wonderful!

    (And thanks for visit and kind words on my blog.)


  6. Emily Ann says:

    Wow, this is a great post too. Opening lines are such a big factor.
    One of the books I’m working right is already on it’s third opening line, all of which have been wildly different from the last. 😛
    It just seems like some people can get away with things while the rest of us struggle to find perfection. 😉

    Btw, I find writer’s do work remarkably similarly. And who can deny our minds are great? 😉

  7. Dani says:

    Great advice! I just rewrote my first chapter, I was guilty of taking too long to get to the action and using the first chapter or so to set up the story. I definitely think it is much stronger now.

  8. lbdiamond says:

    Thanks everyone for stopping by and commenting!

    Letting go of the new, original phrases is so hard because they look so glittery at first. But when you develop the courage to cut ’em, the replacing words are so much more brilliant! Kudos to y’all for having the guts to revise.

  9. Lynn Rush says:

    Nice job. Great suggestions. 🙂

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