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.
FIRST LINE DON’TS:
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.
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.” http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-one (Thanks to Jackie Felger for re-tweeting this link!)