Behind the Pages: Overstating the Importance of Your Novel’s First Line and T.L. Hines’ Waking Lazarus

My rise to acquisitions editor was a bit strange. I was actually a marketing copywriter who kept doing editorial reviews and poking his nose in editorial business when the folks at BHP finally gave me a shot. But I still had my full time job in marketing…and they weren’t going to send to me conferences or anything yet. I had to find my own way.

That was the impetus for starting the first faith*in*fiction blog really. I had to get out there somehow, let people know I existed, and so I created the site. At the same time, I wasn’t just trying to bring people to me, I was actively trying to find folks online. It’s shockingly easy to hide online. The web is so big and most traffic seems to funnel to the big sites.

Somehow though, I have neither memory nor record of how, I stumbled across the website of an unpublished author named T.L. Hines. He had a nice looking site, I remember that. Good design and a professional front is always a good thing. And he had the first chapter of a novel available as a PDF to read. And because I was hunting, I read it.

The first time Jude Allman died, he was eight years old.

Bang! Great, great first line. Tony is a strong writer and so the chapter just rushed on from there. Young Jude Allman walking behind his dad on a ice fishing trip. The boy taking a wrong step, slipping through a hole in the ice, sinking down into darkness and pain before eventually, without any explanation (yet), waking up on a coroner’s table. Inexplicably alive.

I loved the first chapter, but he really had me after the first ten simple, elegant words. And really it was just one that he needed. The word in Tony’s opening line that did all the heavy lifting was “first.”

The first time Jude Allman died, he was eight years old.

“First” is the hook, it’s the nitroglycerine, the match to the fuse.

The cliche says “A picture is worth a thousand words.” That’s wonderful, 1000 words. Tony’s word “first,” though, and all the questions it raises, all the puzzles it places before a reader, is worth 93,000 words or however long Waking Lazarus turned out to be. Never give short shrift to the power of language.

So I contacted Tony, introduced myself, and soon enough we were working together. And the result was Waking Lazarus, a fine, fine suspense novel that’s worth your time. It’s free today at Amazon, Nook, and CBD. (Unless you’re reading this tomorrow or whenever. It’s no longer free but still definitely worth reading.)

:::

Given what I wrote above, what I’m about to say is going to seem contradictory but, really, first lines don’t make much difference. (Unless they do.)

I see an inordinate amount of emphasis being placed on first line, first paragraph. In judging the ACFW Genesis contest, for instance, it’s one of the 10 STORY elements we judge on, equally weighted with establishing conflict and the quality of the piece’s voice. One line, potentially, vs. the voice of your piece! I guarantee every time I’ve judged a new writers’ contest, whatever story has the strongest voice (for me), that’s the one I ended up selecting as my top choice. Because the strongest voice, they may not have the best opening line, but they will have the best dialogue, the best use of POV, the most original writing, the most distinctive characters. All of those things flow out of creating a voice.

(The one thing someone with a great voice MAY NOT be strong in, though, is conflict/stakes. I’ve seen lots of wonderful voices spin their wheels unable to move their story forward. I still love strong voices.)

And yet we still talk a lot about the need for setting the hook early, in that first sentence if possible. People toil over the opening words to their stories as if they matter most. Book nerds will recite their favorite first lines back and forth at each other in a game where only lame-o’s use something as common as the opening to Moby-Dick or Pride and Prejudice.

Part of the reason for the emphasis in contests and at writers conferences is that it’s an easy thing for us to critique. Writers sit down with their dozen pages and have fifteen minutes to talk to us. I can read your first line, your first paragraph but I’m not going to be able to go all that much deeper. And really it isn’t bad advice to say, “Make  your opening intriguing or a strong hook.” It’s not wrong, it’s just gotten overstated in terms of how important it truly is.

In reality, everyline is the most important in the book. Every line is supposed to carry voice, move the reader forward. If a line isn’t doing that job, you take it out. That’s what editing (self or professional) is for. That’s daunting to think about. A 90,000 word novel averaging 10 words per sentence is going to have 9000 sentences. And each one should be immaculate. Not showy. Each will have its own purpose, but they should be immaculate in that purpose.

But readers are busy! If you don’t hook them with your first line or paragraph or chapter, they’ll stay with you.

Readers won’t stay with you if you can’t sustain a story either. The easiest part of the book to write is the beginning. (Except when it isn’t.) Every character is new and interesting. Every setting a fresh locale. Everything is possibility. I cannot tell the massive number of proposals I’ve read where chapters 1-3 or the first 30 pages SHINE like polished metal. And then there’s nothing to follow. The work of writing a novel is from Word 1 to Word 94,346 and I don’t want anyone to be fooled into thinking otherwise.

Tony’s first line hooked me, but it was everything else that followed that delivered. If anything my expectations were HIGHER because of what he set up. I needed great answers to Jude Allman’s penchant for coming back to life and there were a million ways Tony could have failed to deliver. For me, he didn’t though.

So…don’t stress your opening line. Or rather, stress your opening line as much as you stress every other line in your book. For it’s the best perspective to take on a novel.

11 responses to “Behind the Pages: Overstating the Importance of Your Novel’s First Line and T.L. Hines’ Waking Lazarus

  1. I love this perspective. I lived it out not long ago with my current manuscript. I started with a great opening line. It brimmed with emotion, posed questions, showed my heroine’s character. I loved it! But that line I loved led to several paragraphs of introspective narrative with no action to grab the reader’s attention. I ended up scrapping my whole first chapter and starting again with a line I was less in love with but with the action I craved for the opening of my story. First lines can be powerful, what what follows has to be even better.

    • Good thoughts, Karen. My guess is more beginnings get changed than we might think. Even with pretty sure direction from Chapter 1, it takes a bit to find your story’s voice. I think most writers go back and tinker trying to match the “groove” they find later on.

  2. Thank you for addressing some of the mystery. I also loved what Karen said. I scrapped my first chapter in favor of one that delivered more punch and less introspection. And though the first line isn’t what I’d envisioned initially, it delivers. I think it’s an ah-ha moment when we realize that to make mashed potatoes, we have to remember to add the milk!

  3. Hey Dave, great post as usual! Love getting your insights. Oh and by the way, I think that “Cover of the week” needs to be cover of the month, or maybe year. What do you think? ;-) Also, I’m so glad to be getting 60% more raspberries this week. I was going to talk to you about that! ;-)

    • Sarah was paging through the catalog last night and thought Noble Groom was her favorite. And that’s among some strong covers. Love the bold font. It’s a grabber.

  4. I adore well-crafted opening lines – not just the first sentence in the novel, but also the first sentence in every scene. I’m completely charmed by them when they’re done well. But even more, I agree that ALL 9,000 sentences in a novel should be immaculate. I’m disappointed when I read a novel that’s great for the first 4-6 chapters but then drops off and flounders…. Perhaps my disappointment is more acute because my expectations were raised by those early chapters. Once the book grows clumsy I can either put it down or slog through, but neither is an outcome I want as a reader. I really long to love a book’s beginning, a book’s middle, and a book’s end.

  5. Pingback: Faith*In*Fiction: The Importance of Quality with, and Beyond, the Opening Line | Writing Fiction·

  6. Hi! Amber Perry here, from The Historical Christian Review! Excellent thoughts and great advice for someone like me who is just learning about the wonderful world of writing in the Christian Fiction (historical romance) market! I especially love what you said at the end: So…don’t stress your opening line. Or rather, stress your opening line as much as you stress every other line in your book. For it’s the best perspective to take on a novel.
    Again, thanks for a great post!

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