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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

First Lines, Last Lines

Last year I did a talk for my local RWA chapter on first lines and last lines and how important they are for your story. Here’s a copy of that talk. Hope you enjoy!

Great First Lines, Thought Provoking Last Lines

What makes a first line great? What ending line does a novel need to have you thinking about it six months after you have read it?

Let’s explore what an author needs to have those unforgettable first and last lines.

Great First Lines

Here are some great first lines.

1. Call me Ishmael.
2. 124 was spiteful.
3. A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.
4. It was love at first sight.
5. You better not never tell nobody but God.
6. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
7. Last Night I dreamt I went to Manderly again. All children, except one, grow up.
8. Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
9. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
10. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
11. When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
12. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
13. The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
14. It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.
15. Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were - Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter.
16. Harry Potter was a very unusual boy in many ways.
17. We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.
18. Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.
19. Damn, I’m going to lose another one, MacKenzie thought as she beat the steering wheel with her first.
20. Grandma Bennett looked at her granddaughter, Abbie Kincaid, and wondered where she went wrong.
21. No one knows where we came from really.
22. He had always been in this cage in one way or another.
23. What the hell was I doing on this off-planet hell hole?
24. “So…you really don’t know where your underwear might be?”

Why are first lines so important?

The first line sets the tone of the novel, everything else of the story will follow from it. If the first line isn’t something an author can feel in their gut, it’s probably wrong.

The things a first line must or should do are:

• They tend to state something unusual
• They tend to show someone under stress (If you’re planning to write about a nun who has a sudden crisis of faith, don’t start with a barrage of gunfire. Start with something religious. If one of your main characters is going to kill someone, that death will shape their lives forever. If one of your characters is a time traveler, how they handle what they see and experience will decide the course of the story.)
• They must be appropriate to the story
• The first line of a novel should describe the moment when the rest of the novel becomes inevitable. Anything less is just a hook.
• If you really know where you're going as an author, the first line will sum up the whole story.
• They must make the reader want to read line two.
• First lines should be, clever, thought-provoking, draw the reader into an unfamiliar world, bring a smile to the readers face, poignant, setup a mystery, use words in a beautiful or wonderful way, introduce a character, or any other number of things.

Thought Provoking Last Lines

Here are some great last lines:

1. ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.’
2. Are there any questions?
3. Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is.
4. After all, tomorrow is another day.
5. He waited for someone to tell him who to be next.
6. He loved big brother.
7. While I knew I would miss things about Earth, this was where I belonged, exploring things with those I loved and with whom I would spend the rest of my life.
8. “Remember me,” he whispered and gently kissed her before her eyes closed.
9. “Problem is, I think she’s kidnapped me.”
10. So that, in the end, there was no end.
11. While our origins may remain a mystery, our need for companionship isn’t. We need each other to continue fighting, to complement our weakness, to provide that which we cannot provide ourselves. And still we watch and wait but with each other, protecting those innocent worlds from an evil they cannot conceive. An evil only we can combat, together.
12. All this has happened before and all this will happen again.
13. The door is closed.
14. In those final moments, we loved a lifetime.

Why are last lines so important?

• If you’re writing a series, it’s the platform for going onto the next book i.e. cliffhanger.
• The last line is meant to wrap up the novel or short story.
• Last lines make people think.
• If your last line is for a mystery, the mystery must be solved.
• If your last line is for a romance, there must be a happily ever after.
• A great ending ties all the loose ties together into a neat and concise finale.
• It makes your readers want more

Here’s a little exercise for you all to do.


Write a great first line for each of the following scenarios:

A woman realizes her child is missing.
A family realizes they have missed their plane.
A woman is thrown into the impossible situation of playing someone’s fiancé.
A man’s wife, who he didn’t love any more, has died.
Someone realizes that they don’t have long to live.
The first time a person sees the universe from outer space.

Write an ending for the following:


Bibliography and Websites

LeGuin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. The Eighth Mountain Press, Portland 1998. ISBN 0-933377-46-0

Now, the person who can identify correctly the most first and last lines will get a copy of my latest ebook or a book of their choice. Or if you finish the lesson, I’ll do the same. Good luck...see you next week!


1 comment:

Erin Sinclair said...

GREAT article Lynn, thoroughly enjoyed it. :-D


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