The Craft of Bookish First Lines

First lines are difficult no matter the genre, and although fantasy allows for a wider range of topics to start off the book, the variety of choices can make it harder to pick which one is best. I’ve taken some of the fantasy books off of my shelf, a mix of urban fantasy, YA fantasy, and adult epic fantasy, and we’ll go through them here.

To begin, when people talk about a book’s opening lines, they usually opt for something catchy and unexpected. It’s called a hook for a reason. But the purpose of a first line is not to hold the entire weight of the book in a bare few characters. The difference between a good first line and a bad one is whether it can set the scene, the tone of the rest of the book.

A disclaimer! I’m not going to use this blog post to bash books that I disliked or prop up books that I love. The purpose of this post is to look specifically at the opening lines of a variety of books and determine how well it works with the overall narrative. So if I’m critiquing a book’s opening line, it doesn’t necessarily mean I hated the book, and if I am praising it, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I loved the rest of the book.

Other than deciding at what specific point the story begins, the opener is a promise for the reader. It’s not just a matter of what the story is about, but also what the story has to offer. Is this going to be a funny book? Dark? Whimsical? Light-hearted?

I think the best-known example of a book that opens with a tone-appropriate line is none other than Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

It doesn’t say anything about magic. It doesn’t say anything about Harry, the main character. Yet it hints at the magical world by saying, before we even know that the magical world exists, that the Dursleys are very much not a part of it. It also promises a personal, distinctive narrator, even if that narrator will end up being Harry rather than the Dursleys. It also suggests that there is going to be some light-heartedness in the story, and the series delivers.

If a book isn’t going to play around with the more light-heartedness but would rather focus on a darker narrative, it might follow the lead of New Spring (WoT prequel).

The cold wind gusted through the night, across the snow-covered land where men had been killing one another for the past three days.

Obviously, if you’re going to open a book with death, that’s setting reader expectations. Lan Mandragoran is the narrator here, and not only do we get to see how steadfast he is despite the bloodshed, the opening line promises a conflict that is far bigger than any single character. That, as opposed to The Young Elites‘s opening line, “I’m going to die tomorrow,” which suggests the conflict is going to be the main character against the rest of the world.

Breaking the Promise With Loaded Words

Unfortunately, when we say that a book must draw the reader in, we as authors can sometimes take that to mean the opening line itself must be catchy and unexpected. In the pursuit for those perfect first words, it can be easy to forget that the opening line must still connect to the rest of the story.

Sometimes, that’s done by setting the wrong tone. For example, Six of Crows sets before the reader a tone that doesn’t quite pair with the rest of the story.

Joost had two problems: the moon and his mustache.

It’s certainly unexpected, and raises questions, but it sets up a false front. For one thing, Six of Crows is written as a darker YA narrative. Pairing a big rocky mass in the sky with a person’s facial hair does not tell the reader what exactly they’re getting into. Worse, these questions are answered in the subsequent paragraphs, and even to the reader, it feels like a cheap way to catch someone’s attention.

Another offense can be to simply take words that are weighted on their own and just find a way to shoehorn them into the opening. If you want to set your story up as dark, it seems the go-to solution is to mention death or something related to it, even if the death mentioned has little to no bearing on the overall narrative.

In Crown of Feathers, the story opens up with “Veronyka gathered the bones of the dead.” Now, why she is gathering dead is later explained and plays a role in the overall narrative, but the implication is that she is gathering human bones, and although the reader is quickly disabused of that notion, it still feels a little cheap.

A worse offender is Light Between Worlds, which opens with “We’re burying Old Nick in the back garden.” Old Nick is a dog, one who is mentioned very little throughout the rest of the story and whose death means practically nothing to the main characters. Considering the Narnia-esque setting of the story’s flashback scenes and the anger that one of the main characters feels at being kicked out, there were plenty of ways to experiment with the opener that was a little more integrated with the rest of the story.

Beyond the tone, an opening line can also set the reader’s expectations for the main character. It gives the character an opportunity to formulate presence on the first page. Of the ones I have written down, I think the best example of this is from The Magicians: “Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.” Quentin is something of a passive character in the book, prone to follow rather than lead. The opening line says he is forgettable, almost insignificant.

An opening line can also be used to showcase the relative innocence of the main character. I will get into the differences between prologue first lines and first chapter first lines in a few minutes, but the prologue of Tess of the Road opens with Tess at a young age, learning an important lesson. Losing her innocence, in a way, which will be replicated and dealt with on a much grander scale later in the story.

When Tessie Dombegh was six and still irrepressible, she married her twin sister, Jeanne, in the courtyard of their childhood home. 

Married her to Cousin Kenneth, that is.

Six years old, of course, is too young to marry someone or to be married to someone, but it’s just something that little kids play at sometimes, because they think it is some grand thing. That, followed up with the first line of chapter 1, shows a distinct loss of innocence, of shouldering the burden of adult responsibility:

The twins had taken their morning stitchery to the Tapestry Salon, one of the less fashionable sitting rooms in the palace.

Lastly, beyond simple character traits, first lines can be used to highlight what makes the protagonist distinctive, what sets them apart. Marked for greatness, so to speak. For Cinder (Lunar Chronicles series), her physical differences are what sets her apart: “The screw through Cinder’s ankle had rusted, the engraved marks worn to a mangled circle.”

Yet, of course, being marked for greatness does not necessarily mean physically. In Graceling, of course, Katsa has the tell-tale sign of the two-colored eyes, but that’s not what the story opens with. Instead it opens, rather covertly I might add, with her actual Grace. “In the dungeons, the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind.” Although at this point even Katsa does not realize being able to remember maps with such clarity is part of her Grace, it nevertheless sets up for one of the big reveals of the narrative.

Obviously, opening lines don’t have to mark out the character, but it is one way to set the focus. And even here, a tone is still set for the rest of the story.

Prologues play such a distinctive role in the overall narrative that it seemed important to discuss them when talking about opening lines. Essentially, it is a false start to the narrative, and requires the story to open twice. Because some people feel ambiguous towards prologues, it is important to convince them to read that it by making a killer first sentence. On the other hand, it’s important to separate the then from the now, usually through the use of another hook.

I have two examples, one where the prologue has a catchy first line while the first chapter does not, and the second where the opposite is true. The first is Eragon. Compare the prologue–“Wind howled through the night, carrying a scent that would change the world.”–with the first chapter–“Eragon knelt in a bed of trampled reed grass and scanned the tracks with a practiced eye.” The first speaks of potential, of change (a buzzword), whereas the second quote suggests very little about Eragon’s character arc or even the narrative’s overall tone. The prologue is movement–the event that led to the egg appearing in front of Eragon–whereas the first chapter is very abruptly still. It’s very jarring.

On the other hand, we have Fire. The prologue begins with a mundane first line: “Larch often thought that if it had not been for his newborn son, he never would have survived his wife Mikra’s death.” It doesn’t really act as a hook; despite the newborn baby being Graced, there isn’t anything in the first sentence that suggests an oddness, a source of conflict for the reader to want to investigate.

But then it is followed up with the absolutely killer first line of chapter 1: “It did not surprise Fire that the man in the forest shot her. What surprised her was that he shot her by accident.” This single sentence tells the reader that our protagonist is well-acquainted with danger, and is a target, if for as-of-yet unknown reasons. It sets the tone, tells us about the protagonist, and offers a minor event that puts the character outside her norm while still giving us a chance to connect with her.

Some good examples of prologue+chapter 1 first lines can be seen in The Raven Boys and in Bitterblue. In The Raven Boys, both first lines tell us something about the conflict and reinforce the concept that Blue comes from a family of real psychics and thus can trust their predictions. The prologue–“Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love”–adds a certain amount of sass that is reflective on Blue’s character, and the first chapter reaffirms the offhanded creepiness that we can expect from the rest of the book–“It was freezing in the churchyard, even before the dead arrived.” Both are simple and use those buzzwords (“kill,” especially paired with “true love,” and “the dead”) in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or irrelevant.

Then we have Bitterblue, which uses both of its first lines to set the cornerstones of Bitterblue’s character, suggesting what struggles the charater will find herself facing in the narrative. The prologue goes as follows: “When he grabs Mama’s wrist and yanks her towards the wall-hanging like that, it must hurt.” There’s the obvious alarm a reader would feel at the aggression in that single sentence, but also an eerie passiveness from our narrator, a young Bitterblue. That passiveness is explained a little later in the prologue: “This is why, as I sit here now, the numbers are clear but other things in my mind are muddled. Father has just been lying.” Her father, Leck, Graced with the ability to tell lies and have people believe the for truths, is the very reason the first chapter’s opening is more than just catchy. When it says, “Queen Bitterblue never meant to tell so many lies,” it is a statement of her character and a suggestion of the plot: her disentangling herself from her father’s legacy while being unable to escape it fully.

Of course, series are a whole different beast. In some ways, the first line should connect with the previous book or books, but how exactly it can be done depends on the author. Compare Eragon‘s first lines from above with its sequel, Eldest: “The songs of the dead are the lamentations of the living,” referring to the aftermath of the first book. In The Dream Thieves, it manifests in a reminder of Blue’s foretold future: “Theoretically, Blue Sargent was probably going to kill one of these boys.” It is very reminiscent of the opening lines of The Raven Boys, although in the first book, it was mentioned in the prologue, whereas this mentions it in the first chapter.

On the other hand, there is Robert Jordan who begins each of his books with the same text:

The Wheel of Time turns, and the Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings in the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.

If I remember correctly, the wind does not always start at the Mountains of Mist, but in each book, it is used as a transition. The wind will blow throughout the land, and the narrator follows it, giving us passing mentions of where everything is located before settling on whichever character gets the first point of view chapter. It offers a trademark for the series, a constant. In fact, Jordan creates a unique relation between the prologue and the first chapter. The prologues are not where a reader will find the trademark text; rather, they are separate. The ever-growing length of the prologues set up the major characters in terms of where they are and what they’re doing, but they’re a single scene long, nothing more. The trademark text is what signals the start of the narrative.

Whether this would work for any modern series is somewhat unclear, as I’ve only ever seen this done in Jordan’s Wheel of Time. Starting with something as dry and drab as the weather or mentions of the past has fallen out of favor, although the key of the trademark text is not what it says but rather its ability to serve as a transition while still distinctly marking it as part of its series.

Failing that, the opening lines of a second or third book will simply have to fall back on the same elements that the first book did: suggesting the tone, character arc, and/or plot of the story.

Full List of Books Mentioned

If these opening lines made you curious about any of the books I’ve mentioned, below is the full list, with links to their Goodreads page so you can check out their synopsis.

Six of Crows by Leigh BardugoFire by Kristin CashoreGraceling by Kristin CashoreBitterblue by Kristin Cashore
The Magicians by Lev GrossmanTess of the Road by Rachel HartmanNew Spring by Robert JordanEye of the World by Robert Jordan
The Young Elites by Marie LuCinder by Marissa MeyerEragon by Christopher PaoliniEldest by Christopher Paolini
Crown of Feathers by Nicki Pau PretoThe Raven Boys by Maggie StiefvaterThe Dream Thieves by Maggie StiefvaterLight Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

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