First lines, first impressions

I’m behind on my blogging about the North Texas SCBWI conference from this past Saturday. But I have lots of good stuff to tell you about.

Today, I’m starting with first lines. Editor Lisa Yoskowitz, with Penguin’s Dutton Children’s Books imprint, began her presentation by showing a number of first lines from classic books. These first lines introduce the reader to the book and — hopefully — pull them in. The lines Lisa showed were brilliant, and they made me realize something: This is what I’m striving for in my writing.

Here are two of my favorites from Lisa’s presentation:

“Where is Papa going with that ax,” Charlotte asked her mother as they set the table for breakfast. — Charlotte’s Web

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” — Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Both of these are brilliant in different ways, but they both pique interest enough to keep a reader reading.

Here’s what I found so amazing about these two:

Charlotte’s Web:

  • With the ax comment, a reader is immediately interested in what’s going on.
  • Introduces three characters right off the bat and their relationships.
  • Brings the reader smack back into the middle of the action of the story; no need to introduce Charlotte and say she lives on a farm, etc. Just straight to the ax.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

  • Introduces the main character and the type of boy he is swiftly and effectively.
  • Intrigues the reader because we want to know why Eustace deserves his name.

With a book, there are lots of first impressions that encourage a reader to spend their money and take the story home: the cover art, the jacket copy, the authors name. But if readers are like me — and I suspect there are a good many out there who do this — no matter how interesting the front picture and jacket description are, they won’t buy the book unless that first page, sometimes first couple of pages, draw them into the story.

That first page begins with that first line, and it should make a great first impression.

These kind of first lines are what we should be striving for in our own work. And then, of course, the rest of the book should live up to that.

What’s your favorite first line of a book?

Write On!

What do you think?