First Impressions

by Linda Pratt

So, what makes a good opening line? I work in children’s books, and here are a few of my favorites:

“Trouble cruised into Tupelo Landing at exactly seven minutes past noon on Wednesday, the third of June, flashing a gold badge and driving a Chevy Impala the color of dirt.” —Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

lucky

“There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself—not just sometimes, but always.” —The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

“If your teacher has to die, August isn’t a bad time of year for it.” (The Teacher’s Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts by Richard Peck)

And a couple from books for adults:

“The man billed as Prospero the Enchanter receives a fair amount of correspondence via the theater office, but this is the first envelope addressed to him that contains a suicide note, and it is also the first to arrive carefully pinned to the coat of a five-year old girl.” —The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

night

“I wish Giovanni would kiss me. Oh, but there are so many reasons why this would be a terrible idea” —Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Those lines might be described as intriguing, puzzling, oddly funny, or mysterious. Whatever adjective used, the commonality in all great opening lines is that they evoke curiosity, and for a reader – or an agent or editor – to get vested in any story, they have to be made curious . . . and quickly!

A strong opening line, paragraph or page is probably the most important tool you have in getting your work noticed. Does every acclaimed novel have a fabulous opening? No. Does every fabulous opening line assure that novel that follows is going to be great? No. But in trying to attract the attention of agents and editors, it is the first hurdle to making your work stand out.

Author Sarah Aronson once wrote in a post about First Impressions on The Mixed-Up Files Blog, “usually, the impression made by the end of the very first paragraph is accurate”, which was a relief to see an author say to her fellow authors because it’s true. Editors and agents agree with that almost unanimously when we talk among ourselves, but frankly saying so to a wider audience can make a person sound cranky, jaded or arrogant.

However, agents and editors get hundreds if not thousands of submissions every year, and any single agent/editor is only able to represent or edit a limited number of authors in that year. Picture yourself in that situation – your mindset is likely to look first for a reason to decline a submission rather accept it. A first page is going to say a lot about what’s to come. A first sentence even more. It’s a little like American Idol or any other tv competition show; you aren’t given too much time to settle into a song or an act before your fate is decided by the judge or audience. The difference in writing is that you aren’t doing it live. You have time to really sharpen and hone your introduction, and it’s absolutely worth the time to do so.

So take another look at your first lines. Do they grab a reader and not let go? Give us your best first line!

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