So this week’s Broke and Bookish theme is one I actually think about a lot. You’ll probably see why as my list carries on.
First lines are probably the most important thing you have under your belt. Sure, good characterisation and a conflicted plot are great too, but it’s the first lines that are the best thing for it.
I have written about first lines before, but this time I want to talk about something different which is in the first line league: the end of the chapter. Or, the dictionary of mystery and suspense.
Everyone knows that the end of a chapter has to be good. It has to keep the reader reading. You have to do this on the next chapter, and the one after that, and after that etc. Personally, it’s the first chapter that is the cincher. Readers can put the book down after the first chapter and not feel cheated: but after the second, or third, they’re less likely to (in my opinion, anyway. Especially once you get halfway, ’cause then you think ‘hmm, I might as well…). But you still have to keep them reading – or, more precisely, wanting to read.
I’ve got three books I’ve just picked up. Here’s their first last lines:
- ‘And so Maddy Phillips and I met, and so we went to the dance, and so…everything.’ – That Summer by Andrew Greig
- ‘The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.’ – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- ‘”Your heart swears you will,” Halfdan’s daughter told him. “But not your eyes.”‘ – Bracelet of Bones by Kevin Crossley-Holland
All of these three have something in common: they make you want to find out more. You want to find out if Maddy Phillips and this person keep going out together; you want to know if Mrs Bennet’s daughters get married; you want to know why Halfdan’s eyes are not swearing that he will do something.
The endings of the second chapters are equally gripping. But how do you make them so? Here’s some ideas:
- Ask a question. Make sure it’s a question that the readers want to know the answer too. They might not want to know what type of shoes the MC is wearing, but they might want to know how the victim died. This can be a cliché method, so perhaps it’s better for a later chapter; and don’t make the questions have an obvious answer. Your readers have to keep going to find out, they can’t just guess and get it right, otherwise they might shut the book and (shock, horror!) never open it again.
- End on a dramatic statement. ‘It was Uncle Bob’s last ounce of butter’ probably isn’t going to have much of an impact (unless butter is the pivotal plot point in your novel) but something like ‘I accidentally pulled the trigger’ will probably make your readers scramble to turn the page.
- End on speech. “Mum, I got the carrots!” No. “Mum, it’s [antagonist]!” Yes. Speech can be valuable – especially because characters can lie. If your readers know something about your MC that the other characters don’t know, and then the MC lies about it, they’re going to want to know a) what happens and b) why did they lie (unless this has already been spelled out).
- Cliffhangers are your new best friends. Especially if you’re ending a novel and already have the next instalment up your sleeves. Cliffhangers can be good for chapters in the middle of the novel (*cough*the climax*cough*) but don’t use them too constantly, otherwise readers will be bored and they won’t be as dramatic as you’d like them to be. Cliffhangers aren’t necessarily the last line – don’t read the rest of this paragrap if you haven’t read The Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan and want to. Basically, Annabeth and Percy fall into Tartarus, and the final chapter is the team deciding what to do. And that’s where it ends. But, it’s still a cliffhanger, because we don’t know what happened and want to.
I wouldn’t necessarily end on description unless it’s unusual. For example, if the MC is describing someone new they just met, you wouldn’t say ‘They had brown hair, brown eyes and freckles.’ You would say ‘They had brown hair, freckles over their nose, and piercing brown eyes with pupils that narrowed once they caught sight of me.’ That is the thing that makes the readers what to read on: mystery and suspense.
Basically, you want the readers to be doing this after every chapter/book, wanting to know the next bit:
Good luck in writing your last lines. You’ll do great! 😀
Questions, comments, thoughts? Shoot! 😀
PS, it’s the first day of NaNoWriMo. What’s your word count?
Speech, action, description.
What do all of these things have in common? Well, yes, they’re all words; but, more importantly, they’re ways to start your story! And we all love starting stories…
When readers start reading, you have about 3-5 seconds to capture their attention. I’ve just read a page of something and discovered that when I read normally, 3-5 seconds is about 20-30 words. Some sources say you have 10 seconds, which is what I actually did – and that was 59 words.
As you can see, you don’t have a long time, maybe one or two sentences. So how do you keep those readers reading?
The first line (I’m keeping this with a story, but if it’s a film or play, say about the first few minutes, even seconds. If it’s a poem, unless it’s like the Odyssey, they’re bound to keep reading cause it’s short) is crucially important. Most readers will try and at least make it to the last line of the first page before the put the book down and pick up another, or click the ‘back’ button on the top of the screen, but it’d be a lot easier for you if they were hooked from the beginning. Of course, you have to do your job and keep them reading beyond that, but that’s for another article next week.
I have in front of me 3 books (they were just lying around, but they’re quite different and I hope at least one appeals to you). Here are their first lines:
- ‘Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.’ – The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.
- ‘I suppose a lot of teenage girls feel invisible sometimes, like they just disappear.’ – I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You by Ally Carter
- ‘Sam Horwitz had never felt so excited.’ – The Forgotten Army by Brian Minchin (Doctor Who book)
So, the question is, what is it about these first lines that keep readers reading?
Well, The Da Vinci Code intrigues us with the words ‘renowned’, ‘staggered’ and introducing a character. We’re wondering why they’re staggering, and how they are renowned. Curious? Yes. (I’d just like to point out now that I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code, so no spoilers please. It is on my to-read list though, promise!)
Ally Carter’s book (come on, that title is way too long to type out) pulls us in by wondering why this narrator (we’re assuming a teenage girl, but can’t be sure) is talking about teenage girls and why they’re disappearing. It’s relatable, too, ’cause we’ve all felt like it (I’m assuming). And we want to know why the narrator is talking about feeling invisible – maybe they’re actually invisible? We don’t know, but we want to find out.
Finally, The Forgotten Army grabs our attention by introducing a character and making him excited. We’re wondering why he’s excited, what it is he’s looking at. We’re wondering who this Sam is, as well, and that keeps us reading too.
Now we’ve seen how the professionals do it. But how can we apply this to ourselves?
There are many things you can do (note: not all of these apply to the first line, but definitely the first page):
- DO give them something interesting, eg humour or action, preferably in the first line. People
wantneed something to keep them continue reading. You are the writer, you have to do that for them. SO DO IT.
- DO ensure spelling, grammar and punctuation are the best they can be (this puts so many people off. Make sure the first page is typo-free, at least).
- DO introduce a character that the readers are interested in. (The Da Vinci Code)
- DO introduce a setting that the readers are interested in. (I don’t have one with setting at the moment, but I’m sure you know what I mean – crumbling walls and what-not)
- DO introduce a scenario the readers are interested in. (The other two)
The first line has to snap up the readers’ attention. Throw them your best language, most fabulous description. Think about what made you read this article (hopefully it’s ’cause you were curious about the first three words. If not, that’s gone horribly wrong).
In anything, the first line has to get your readers asking six questions that keep them going: who, what, when, where, why and how. These questions may pop up later in the first paragraph, but by the end of the page, your readers should be thinking ‘come on, I want to know!’
And this, my friend, is what keeps them going. And another important thing is not to drivel on in your first chapter, as I am doing now (I’ll stop soon, promise).
I think it’d be easier right now to write about what not to do when starting. Here:
- DO NOT start with describing the weather. The only time this is acceptable is when the character is about to get struck by lightening, or it is huge to your plot. If your character is sitting in the garden, start with something different other than they’re basking in the sun.
- DO NOT start with something that doesn’t come to play in the rest of the book (eg the WEATHER). In The Forgotten Army, Sam is excited about a new exhibit, but it all goes horribly wrong – his excitement helps to create a plot twist.
- DO NOT start with character or setting (eg, ‘It was 1949 and the beach was golden…’) description. At least give us some action first, otherwise the readers are gonna put your story down ’cause they’ll assume it’s all boring drivel. I originally got you reading with excitement and curiosity, and here you are now – reading my boring drivel.
- Basically, don’t start with anything you wouldn’t want to read yourself. There, that’s easy, isn’t it?
I hope I’ve given you some food for thought about how to start your next piece, or, indeed, update existing ones. And if you’ve read this far have a cookie, cause this has been quite a long article. Sorry about that. Quite a lot to say on the subject to be honest.
Here’s a task for you: find a book you loved and a book you hated/didn’t finish and look at their first lines. What dragged you into the one you liked, and made you put down the one you didn’t?
Questions, comments, thoughts? Shoot! 😀
Ps sorry it was so long, I got a little carried away…