Tag Archives: short story

Famous First Lines

Image from Wikipedia

In the competitive marketplace of books, how does a writer hook a browsing reader deeply enough to entice him into the story world? How do you make a browser into a purchaser and ultimately a reader?

There are some basic features of a book that I’ll be covering over the next several posts to draw potential readers far enough into the story for them to decide if they like it enough to buy.

In the order that a browser discovers a new book, the tools I’m going to focus on over the next few posts are:

  1. Cover
  2. Title/Author’s Name
  3. Back of book blurb/positive review blurbs
  4. First Line

For some reason, I have decided to start with the last first.

First Lines.

What is so important about the first line? If the browser already likes the title, cover art, and story summary on the back, why then is the first sentence/paragraph of the story equally important?

It’s simple. The cover, title, and blurbs are not the story. They are the packaging, the wrapping, the dressing, or the window display. Those elements found outside the book, on the front and back covers, are marketing elements meant to attract the reader to the book from among all the other books for sale nearby, whether on a book shelf in a store, or in a list of thumbnails on a virtual shelf at an online retailer.

Consider the packaging elements your bait and the first line your hook.

The first line, however, is the absolute beginning of the story and the first written words by you–the author–that will plant the story question in the browser’s mind. A poor or forgettable first line may not allow the hook to set. The browser may simply move on to another book, the way a nibbling trout may decide the bait isn’t enticing enough to swallow.

A solid or even great first line, though, can set the hook deeply and instantly raise a compelling question in the browser’s mind that allows him to be reeled in. The browser become a reader and wants to find out what happens next.

That first line will be provocative, unique, and appropriate for the story theme and genre. For some examples from famous and/or classic novels, The American Book Review posted their list of top 100 first lines. You can read the list here.

Many of those story openings are still excellent, even by today’s popular reading tastes and standards.

So, how does a writer create that great first line that completes the four elements needed to hook a browser and turn them into a purchasing reader?

Let’s analyze my published story, “Time Soldier”, and see if I succeeded in opening with a compelling story question that entices a reader to continue. If you want to read this story, I’ve posted it here in an earlier blog. I must warn you, I wrote this a long time ago, so I’m hoping I’ve progressed a bit since then.

Here’s the opening sentence:

The man in the olive drab army jacket awoke in a daze.

If a browser saw this one single sentence, what story question is raised?

The first character introduced is usually an important one, often the protagonist. So the browser could assume they’ve now met a key character. What else is known? The man’s attire. An army jacket has a certain connotation that means either a current or former soldier, or someone who shops at an army surplus store. Since the title of this story is “Time Soldier”, the browser can safely assume they’ve now met the time soldier.

awoke in a daze.

This is where the first line gets a little more interesting. Why is the man dazed and where did he awake? What happened to him? Is he in the middle of a battle? Is it after a battle? Is he waking from a nightmare years after a war?

If the reader was already interested enough based on the title to begin reading the story, then this opening line may compound that interest so the browser will want to know what is happening to this man in the army jacket who just awoke in a daze.

Will the browser read on?

Here are the next two sentences:

He sat up and looked around suspiciously. He was in a small park near a line of rusted railroad tracks.

Okay, now we have the setting introduced to help orient the reader. If the reader was wondering where the man awakened, that question is quickly answered. But a new question is raised by the man’s reaction to the setting. He is “suspicious”. So, he either doesn’t know where he is or expected to be somewhere else. Being in a park isn’t unusual, but waking up in a park seems unusual for this man.

So why is he in the park? How did he get there? Why is he dazed? What has happened to him? Drugs? Hangover? Wound? A simple nap?

Again, the reader is already aware that the title character is a time soldier, so perhaps the man just traveled through time and that is why he’s dazed. That is possible, but the answer isn’t yet apparent. The browser will need to read on.

Here’s the rest of the opening paragraph:

A slight breeze barely moved his dusty, unkempt hair. He looked down at this chest and thoughtfully watched the flow of blood slow to a trickle. In an instant, his life’s liquid dried and the hole in his chest sealed itself up like punctured bread dough. What was left was an odd numb sensation.

Okay, pardon the clumsy descriptions, but the rest of this opening paragraph answers a couple of the initial questions, but then raises more.

He’s dusty and dirty. Perhaps he came from a battle, or has traveled a great distance. Perhaps he’s homeless. We don’t yet know.

He’s bleeding, but the bleeding is stopping and he watches this happen “thoughtfully” as if it is either not a surprise or is a common occurrence. This is provocative. Why is he bleeding? How severe is the wound?

The bleeding stops, dries up and then the hole in his chest seals up? Whoa! What is this? He was apparently shot in the chest and was bleeding, but he is suffering no effects AND the wound closes itself! What is going on? This is a bigger story question.

Okay, so we now know that this time soldier was shot and woke in an unfamiliar place. He probably traveled through time from the place where he was shot. Somehow, though, his body can heal itself. If he can’t be hurt, then maybe he can’t die. What does this mean? Why can’t he be hurt? Is this a curse, a blessing, magic, advanced science, or a function of time travel?

All these questions would occur to me and I know the rest of the story.

If the story questions are intriguing enough to propel the browser forward, the hook sets, and you’ve just landed a reader.

Now that the reader is hooked, the rest of your story needs to deliver on the opening story promise and answer all the initial story questions in a believable and satisfying manner. How the writer accomplishes that is a huge topic worthy of many future posts. For now, I refer you to your favorite writing book or web site on how to finish the story you started.

So, let’s recap the importance of first lines.

First, you capture the browser’s attention with an attractive cover, unique or intriguing title, polished story summary blurb, and reviewer blurbs from reviewers the reader may know (a best-selling writer would be good).

Then you quickly hook the browser with a first line that immediately raises a story question that the browser wants answered and is willing to keep reading to discover.

Write a great first line and you have one more effective way to turn a browser into a reader.

And that is exactly what a writer wants, to have readers.

In my next post, I’ll talk about one of the other elements of turning browsers into readers.

Until then, what are some of your favorite first lines from novels you’ve read? Why do you like them?

If you’re a writer, how do you approach first lines?


Reaching the summit

With a couple of days to spare, I’ve dragged myself up the steep trail and have planted myself firmly on the summit.  The elusive first draft of my novella, “The Last Portal,” is complete.


My wife/muse/first reader gave me the thumbs up, so I submitted the story to my anthology group this past Tuesday for editing.  Thus begins at least two rounds of scrutiny and polishing to elevate the story to its peak altitude (mountain metaphors intentional).

So, what was my process for writing a 16,000+ word story?

Since this story is set in the fantasy world I created for my novel series, the world-building had already been done.  I decided on characters and a single significant event that would be considered a legend or myth by the protagonists in the novels (which occur chronologically some 5000 years later).  The same way we look back thousands of years for our history, mythology, legends, and origin stories.

So, I came up with characters who would do something so significant they would be remembered as legends or myths in the story world.  My goal was twofold: produce a new original story for my group anthology and deepen the story world of my upcoming epic fantasy novel series.

To complete this story, I wrote between two and three hours per day for three solid weeks.  I estimate the first draft of this story took me at least 32 hours.  That seems long, but at 16000 words, that averages 500 words per hour.   I am not a blazing fast writer, since I often stop writing to think through the scene or the characters actions and how the plot should progress.  I had written an outline and short synopsis for this story, so it wasn’t discovery writing.  Even with a story plan, I spent big chunks of writing time thinking through a plot point or deviating from the outline for a better story path.

The result is under review by my writing group.  I’ll update soon once I get some feedback.

The process of collaborating on an anthology project has inspired me to expand my focus on short fiction.  I have rekindled my enthusiasm for short fiction, finding the process creatively satisfying.  Thus, I will soon have another new project to discuss as I prepare another novella for publication.  More details to follow.  Yes, another teaser.  This project is even more exciting to me because it is a novella that introduces a potential stand alone novel in the historical/modern fantasy genre.

What do you do to reach the proverbial summit in your writing?  How do you stay with a story until the end?

Dam the flood?

No, it’s not raining.  Really?  Rain in the desert?  And because there is no rain, the rivers are dry, the lakes are static and the climate is stable.  Hot and dry, but stable.

What I refer to is a creative flood.  Let me ‘splain.  No, there is too much.  Let me sum up.

Project Q, my anthology short story, has just exceeded my target goal of 10,000 words.  While this is good news and I’ve enjoyed the ride on the whitewater rapids of 1000 plus words per day, the story is only 2/3 completed based on what has to happen.

What does this mean?

It means that the story dictates the story.  No, that is not a philosophical paradox.  In my experience, goals and targets are merely mile markers on the journey to “The End.”  The end of the story is not a destination, it is the end of a journey.

Okay, I’ve lost you.  Here’s an analogy.  With a car and a GPS, you pick a distant city and drive a specific, direct route to get there and arrive in a relatively precise amount of time after having traveled a relatively precise distance.  With travel, this is what we want in most cases.  Predictable planning.

No so with writing.  The goal with writing is to create a journey, not reach a specific destination.  The story idea may suggest a general size, short story versus novel.  But can you really predict that a particular short story will be exactly 10,000 words or a novel will be exactly 200,000 words?  Does it make any sense to expand or contract a story to fit into arbitrary size parameters.

Yes and no.  If you’re writing for periodicals, there is typically a finite space allotted to fiction and that will have a word count limit.  See the guidelines for the specifics.  If you’re writing for category fiction, your novel may need to be within a certain narrow range, e.g. 50,000 – 55,000 words based on the format for that category.  See publishers guidelines for specifics.

Outside those types of markets, it makes less sense to confine the story.

In my case, the anthology for which I am writing has a “suggested” and “agreed upon” target word count of 10,000 words, but no real upper limit.  Sure, those parameters are somewhat arbitrary, but the story will ultimately determine the length.

My deadline is this Sunday.  My story has reached my initial minimum target, but it is not finished.  So, for me, for this story, I will not dam the flood and will let the river rage on.

What are your thoughts on story length?


Major announcement update!

I recently posted a teaser about a new side project that I began recently.  It is time for more details.

I have been invited to submit a short story to an anthology co-created by members of my writing group.  There should be six stories each at 10,000+ words in length.  So, not really short stories, more like long stories/novellas.  The genre for the anthology is fantasy (including urban, paranormal, historical, epic, etc).  I will post more information about the title and contents as they become finalized.

We are all working furiously on this new project which we will publish as an e-book via Kindle, Nook, and other avenues sometime this fall.  You can track my own draft progress on the sidebar under the Project Q: First Draft progress bar.  Q stands for Quindecim, the name of our writer’s group.  For those of your not conversant in Latin, Quindecim means “Fifteen”.  Again, more details to follow as the plan unfolds and deadlines are hit.

I am very excited about this project as it will allow me an introduction to both project collaboration and self-publishing online.  My story is a legend set in the world of my epic fantasy series and is complementary to the two novels I am in the process of writing, The Lost Tower and The Codex of Shrines.

Check back soon for more updates.  Our first deadline in July 31 and I will have a post about the story writing process around that time.




Major announcement coming soon!

A brief alert to everyone that I will be announcing details of a major new project in the coming weeks.  While I run the marathon that is writing my epic fantasy novel, The Lost Tower, I am now involved in a side project that will fully illustrate the concept that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Does that sound vague enough?  Good.  I am holding off on sharing the details until a bit later.  Check back for updates.

I am very excited about this project and it will serve as an excellent foray into the world of publishing.  There, that’s a little hint.

More to come.

In the meantime, read this announcement by J.K. Rowling regarding the Harry Potter franchise and you’ll know why my decision to e-publish my epic fantasy series feels like the right one.

Link to article in the Huffington Post.


Scott's Grimoire

MY SPOT OF INK: my ramblings on the ups and downs of writing a fantasy novel (or anything else that grabs my interest - books, food, movies, life)

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Geoff's Ruminations

The thoughts and passions of a hopeful future author.