Write a Killer First Line

by Karen Finneyfrock

When I’m not writing young adult fiction, (my debut novel, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door, came out on Viking Children’s Books in 2013), I’m teaching creative writing through Writers in the Schools.

For the past four years, I’ve spent two weeks teaching in Port Townsend, Washington at the K-8 school, Blue Heron. For three of those years, I’ve been with the same group of elementary ages students as they passed third, fourth and fifth grade. This lesson about first lines was adapted for the fifth grade group.

Whether the focus is on fiction, memoir or personal narrative, the same lesson applies to all three: you’ve got to have a killer first line!

I start by showing the students some classics.

“All children, except one, grow up.”
         Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

“See how those six words pique your interest?” I say to students. “What are you curious about already?”

“’Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.”
         Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

“Who’s Jo?” I ask after showing the kids this one. We usually agree that Jo might be pretty important to the story, since she is mentioned by name in the first line. Here’s an example of a first line that doesn’t concentrate so much on character, but gives us an immediate jolt of action and setting.

“For many days we had been tempest-tossed.”
         The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss

From these examples, I like to move to a longer opening line with more detail and complexity.

“Once on a dark winter’s day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night, an odd-looking little girl sat in a cab with her father and was driven rather slowly through the big thoroughfares.”
         A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

This line has a healthy dose of setting, character and mood. The detail that seems to indicate the focal point in this line is the phrase, “odd-looking.” It’s tough not to find yourself curious about this little girl. A good opening line often provides some hint as to the nature of the story. Will it be a character-driven story? How important is the setting? What is the mood of the story: dark and mysterious or sweet and whimsical? When it comes to contemporary titles, appropriate for older readers, I was hooked as a reader after just the first line of Weetzie Bat.

“The reason Weetzie Bat hated high school was because no one understood.”
         Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block

A great opening line should plant a question in the reader’s mind. “Why is this character named Weetzie Bat?” I wonder. “Is she really a bat?” My students ask. How can you stop reading a book with a question like that already taking root? Here’s a less dramatic beginning to a well-written book.

“It’s the first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache.”
         Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

I think this first line gives us a taste of the narrator’s voice, which is arguably the most important aspect of Speak, a novel about a girl losing and regaining her voice due to trauma. Another contemporary title with a strong narrator, and one that can shock and delight school children is this one.

“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”
         Feed by M.T. Anderson

When teaching about opening lines in young adult novels, I find myself surprised and inspired by how much authors are able to do with those first impressions. It was important to me in the writing of my YA novel, whose opening lines are these:

“At fourteen I turned Dark. Now I’m Celia the Dark.”
         The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door by Karen Finneyfrock

A fun thing to do with students after you’ve read through all the first lines is to take a poll and find out which book the class is most interested in reading. My all-time favorite opening line?

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
         Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White



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