You really begin to understand how an agent or editor can make a decision about a manuscript with perhaps the first line. You learn what works and what doesn't, and it can surprise you. This last summer (2006) there were several entries which, as the editors and agents put it, were not that bad, but they just didn't grab anyone. The writing was okay and the characters were okay--but okay won't get you a contract. Many of them spent the first page just describing things, without giving you any sense of the character's situation and immediate problem.
Even more interesting was the amount of redundancy even in the small pile of entries that were read. I mean, with just a selection of about 20 first pages, you had several where the stories started out the same. What are the odds? You would think there would be more variety in such a small sampling. Two had almost identical first lines, i.e Sex sells. Which highlights the first point you need to know: when agents and editors say they are looking for something different, they really mean it, because they get hundreds of manuscripts which are virtually the same, right down to the first line.
Many authors had cute/shocking first lines like Sex sells which turn out to be as common as dandelions. They forget that all the other authors are also trying to find cute/shocking first lines, and apparently, everyone comes up with lines that are pretty much just cliches.
From the entries read, here is a brief a breakdown of some of the similiarities. These are things that will make the editor/agent roll their eyes because they see these all the time.
- The hero who is being forced to marry for x reason (usually family duty). There were several entries that started out this way.
- A wounded hero (one story went on for quite some time expounding upon the hero's headache/head wound, which triggered a lot of snarky comments about whiny heroes by the editors/agents)
- Heroines masquerading as men
- The woman is about to get married, but looking into the mirror, she reflects that she doesn't know why she wants to marry this particular guy. Two stories started out this way.
- Two stories (thriller/suspense types) both started out in South America--a real turnoff for agents/editors
- Two stories started out in the killer's viewpoint, and/or with an actual killing
- Heros or heroines with excessively cute children, or just children. As they mentioned, children are not sexy and have a tendency to focus the story away from the romance. The agents and editors did not want to see any more heroes or heroines with children, trying to find a babysitter so they could go out on a date.
However, while those particular scenarios caused a lot of eye-rolling and "Stop!" comments, there were other things besides trite or "I thought this was unique--only it isn't" situations. There were actual flaws that even the audience began to recognize within a line or two.
The first line has to be good. It sets the tone for the book and there are a number of readers (including editors) who will not read the manuscript if the first line is boring or yucky. If you're writing a thriller, don't make the first line so gross that it puts your reader off. Shocking first lines backfire most of the time (and cause a lot of guffaws). Don't start in the killer's POV. In fact, start in the hero or heroine's POV, because that is the person the reader needs to identify with if they are going to read the book. In a mystery, be aware that if you start in the POV of the victim, you'll make the reader wary about sympathizing with any character because they'll be afraid if they like the character, you'll kill the character off.
Study the first lines in your favorite books and see what makes them work. What grabs you? Your first line is the hook--make sure the barb is sharp enough to catch your reader.
- If your tone is witty and humorous, make the first line witty and humorous. Or wry.
Well, maybe she wasn't all that blonde, but it'd be a crime to call hair like that light brown. Max Phillips' Fade to Blonde.
Winter is very democratic. Marion Chesney's Hasty Death.
- Make the first line interesting. Pose or imply a question the reader will need to have answered.
The man first started noticing it in 1998. Lisa Gardner's The Killing Hour. Poses a question you want answered: who was the man and what did he notice?
He fled for the border. Susannah Carleton's The Marriage Campaign. Again, she poses a question: why is he fleeing for the border?
First Paragraph/First Page
Avoid too many details. Be very, very sparing of description and details. Excessive details killed several entries because it took too long for the author to get into the book. You want to get into the characters and their situation as quickly as possible. Preferably within the first line/first paragraph. Save details for later in the book, although even then, make sure the detail counts! Don't add detail just because you can, or because you think it sets the mood somehow. Agents and editors call this "over writing" so be very, very wary of it.
Avoid too much mystery. Don't get cute and withhold information. I know you want to surprise your readers, but don't delay telling them who your hero/heroine is and what their situation is, right up front. If you withhold information, your readers will withhold their interest and you'll lose them. You don't have to give us this for BOTH the hero and heroine in the first line, but you need to introduce us to one of these characters in the first line and show what that character's immediate issue is. Do it within the first paragraph, if possible. If you don't give us some information, we won't care enough to get past the first page.
Now, this initial issue may not be the main conflict (either internal conflict or external conflict) but it has to be some sort of a conflict to get our interest and hook us, and it should be either related to the major conflict, or lead to it.
If you haven't given your reader a sense of the central character's initial predicament by the end of page one, your reader isn't going to get to page 2. If you are a journalist, you know you have to answer: who, why, where, when. You have exactly the same task for page one of your novel.Remember: you can hook your reader on your first sentence or you can lose them. It's up to you.