Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Guest Author - AJ Neust on the Significance of First Lines

Please help me welcome author AJ Neust who is going to talk about the significance of first lines in a novel.


Ahhh…that first line of any new story is like that first bite of chocolate, or maybe that first sip of wine. With it, an author can create mystery, sound, action, tone, setting, or even inspire the reader to think outside the box. The first line of any new story is a powerful tool. It needs to snag the reader, invite them into a world the author’s created so they get lost in the story and finish that first chapter without even realizing how far they’ve come. Maybe that’s why first lines are so hard to write. And why I so often get asked by aspiring writers, “Where do you start?”

My answer? Start in the middle. While this may sound contrary to everything you imagined about crafting a story, don’t assume all great novels start at the beginning. In fact, most of them start somewhere way past the beginning. And some even start at the end.

In one of my earliest manuscripts, I clearly laid out all the details, describing with great care the scenery, now my characters were dressed and each expression they wore. I delved into character development, going off on tangents to show the reader the place each person stood in their lives. I spent hours laboring over the groundwork, when in reality, I was bogging down the manuscript with so much ennui, the story didn’t actually begin until five or six pages into the first chapter.

Now I start in the middle and let the story unfold. I weave history in where appropriate, describing only those details needed to move the story along, giving hints about the past and future, while leaving the rest for subsequent chapters. While I realize this sounds a lot easier said than done, the most important thing to remember is your characters already know who they are. They’re already IN the scene, and have lived up to the point where you START the story. If a good author is truly each of their characters, then those characters wouldn’t waste page after page telling themselves what they already know. They wouldn’t tell themselves why they are taking a certain action or what they’re wearing, because to the character, these story elements are already in place.

Instead, (and here’s where things get tricky) their story would be told by the comments other characters give them, the reactions displayed, the scenery and emotions these elements inspire. This is the key to create a great first line, scene and chapter.

One of the best comments I get from a critique partner is a QUESTION. “Wait, what happened before this happened? Why is she acting so weird?” AHA! Then I know the reader will flip the page to find out what happens next (or in some cases, what happened previously). Even if the element I’ve introduced doesn’t yet make sense, I’ve sparked the reader’s curiosity enough to keep turning pages. That being said, a fine line exists between creating enough intrigue to snare the reader’s interest, and leaving the reader frustrated. Any good author has the ability to “divine” this mysterious line. Don’t be so vague, the reader can’t follow the story.

Start in the middle, at a key point in the story. Being with a bang–the moment your hero and heroine meet, the fleeting second your heroine has an epiphany or sees another character do something that could potentially change her life. Become you’re characters, and undoubtedly, the first line will write itself.

Answer this question to enter AJ’s blog drawing:

What author penned this famous first line? “Who is John Galt?”

Visit our February Valentine’s Blog Tour and leave a comment to win a prize. The more blogs you visit with comments, the better your chances of winning. Prizes begin valued at $20, increasing each week to a Grand Prize of over $50!

Other blogs to visit include:

Bio -

Author AJ Nuest lives in a small farming community in Northwest Indiana with her loving husband and two beautiful children. She is the author of two contemporary romance novels.

Contact Information her on the web:




Jezebel’s Wish Blurb:

Haunted by nightmares, tormented by guilt, Jezebel came to Redemption Ranch to escape the past—except now she's stuck in the middle of nowhere with no redemption in sight. When her mother pushes her into riding lessons with local veterinarian Matthias Saunders, Jezebel balks. Sure, the doctor is gorgeous, but he’s completely obnoxious and knows how to push every one of her buttons.

Only her deep connection with The Reverend, a gentle stallion who guards her darkest secrets, has her agreeing to spend any more time with Dr. Saunders. Caring for the stallion is the first bright spot in her life in months, and if being around the horse means she has to deal with Matthias Saunders, then so be it. Surely a city girl like her can handle one country vet—even one with disturbing blue eyes. Can't she?

Jezebel’s Wish Excerpt:

Jezzy stopped. “I thought I was having a riding lesson.”

“You are.” He nodded toward the empty paddock. “Go in.”

“Go in?” Jezzy propped a hand on her hip. “You sure you know what you’re doing? Because it was my understanding that an actual horse is needed for a riding lesson.”

“Don’t you think it would be wise at this juncture to leave the understanding up to the professionals?”

Jezzy rolled her eyes. “You’re making this way too easy. Professionals? Please. Don’t get me started.”

“Why not? Getting you started is exactly what I’m here for.”

Jezzy’s jaw dropped. She didn’t quite know how to interpret that remark.

He held out the rope. “Now go in. And take this lead line with you.” Steely blue determination glinted in his eyes. There was no way he was going to give in.

Jezzy snatched the lead line from his hand and stormed through the gate, then turned when he closed it behind her.

He put a foot on the bottom railing and rested against the gate, facing the horizon. “Take the chair to the center of the paddock and sit down.”

“And just exactly how is that supposed to teach me to ride?”

He cocked an eyebrow. “You want out of the deal?”

Jezzy’s fist clenched tight around the lead line. What she wanted was to march back to the fence and smack his face.


Sherry Gloag said...

Great post :-) The answer to your question is
John Galt is the protagonist in Ayn Rand's book, "Atlas Shrugged".

AJ Nuest said...

Hi Sherry,

Thanks so much for visiting my blog! And you are absolutely correct! Ayn Rand is one of my favorite authors, and this first line has stuck with me ever since I read Atlas Shrugged. Good luck in the drawing for the contest!

Lynn Chantale said...

Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. I'll have to find a copy. The excerpt has piqued my curiosity. Can't wait to read it.

AJ Nuest said...

Good Morning, Telly! Great to see you here, and yes, the line comes from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Don't worry about purchasing a copy, I'd be happy to loan you mine. :-)

DarleneLF said...

Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Great post AJ! Makes one think of yet another new story...

AJ Nuest said...

Thanks, Darlene! Glad to see you guys still have power :-) I'll be thinking of you during the storm. Hang tight! AJ