Since I contribute writing advice to the vast jumble of the internet, I also read a lot of it, and there is a lot that’s been said on first lines. I’ve even written some of it.
When I read, I’m not hyper-critical of first lines. I’m usually not even that harsh on first paragraphs or pages. If I’m not into it by the end of the prologue/first chapter, that’s usually where my cut-off is, so I guess you could call me generous that way.
But a few days ago, starting another free romance on my Kindle, I came across the worst first line I’ve ever read.
I’m not going to give the name of the book, because I’m not that mean. A large part of my literary heart still feels like judging an entire book from a single line and giving up on it is unfair…so I’ll keep this anonymous. But I picked up the book based on an interesting blurb and a 4.5 star rating across several hundred reviews, so I honestly thought, going in, that it was going to be a decent read. I’ve certainly been surprised by less.
So here they are, the four words that made me drop my Kindle into my lap in shock:
“My parents are dead.”
Think about that for a second.
“My parents are dead.”
Where do I even start talking about how terrible an opening line this is, according to every bit of writing wisdom out there?
- It’s backstory. Don’t lead with backstory. Lead with action.
- This is my first impression of the narrator. Is the fact that her parents are dead really the most important thing about her, so that it needs to be conveyed to the reader immediately? Isn’t that something that can wait, so it can have context?
- Not that this couldn’t be forgiven if the rest of the story turns out to be solid, but the absent/dead parents trope is overused. In YA especially, to give the young protagonists more freedom than they would otherwise have, but it pops up in romance a lot as well, for the easy access to a tragic past. Boooooring.
- The only interesting thing about the sentence itself is the shock value, which is negligible at best, since we don’t know anything else about the narrator yet. It isn’t descriptive enough to be a compelling hook, like “When I was ten, my parents died in a hot-air balloon accident, and I still don’t know how I survived.” (I’m not saying that’s an amazing opening line, but it’s got a little more oomph, right? Because it sets up a little mystery around the narrator.)
So, this time your homework is to study some opening lines. Do as many as you want, and again, I’d suggest a mix of some books you’ve read and some you haven’t. Ask yourself with each one if you think it’s a strong beginning, or not, and why. Which commonly accepted conventions does it follow, and which does it break? If you think it’s weak, how could you rewrite it to make it stronger? Or, for bonus points, are there stronger sentences on the first page that would have made better opening lines? Could they be moved to the beginning, or does everything ahead of them need to be cut?
As for the book that inspired this exercise, I did tough it out to the end of the first chapter before I gave up. It was ten pages long and covered eight years of backstory in the narrator’s life. I would much rather have gotten all that information spaced out over the first few chapters, and this is a romance, for pity’s sake! Couldn’t there be character discovery through dialogue? Couldn’t the romantic hero be curious about the narrator’s past? If/when she tells Mr. Right everything laid out in the first chapter, it’s all going to be rehash to me, the reader, and there was nothing there so interesting I’d look forward to hearing it twice.
I do not feel any guilt about setting this one aside.