Friday, April 23, 2010

On the Art of First Impressions

First Impression: noun - a lasting effect, opinion, or mental image of somebody or something.

I've been thinking about the first impression writers make with page one of their works. I don't know about you, but the first few sentences I write for any work-in-progress are written and re-written and re-written. This is all for good reason. Imagine the casual bookstore customer picking up a book at the store, reading the jacket flap, then the first page, only to put it back on the shelf because the style or immediacy of conflict or setting didn't pull them in. I confess - I am one of those casual readers. It may not be a fair assessment, but with so many books on my ever-expanding wish list, it's the one I use.

Now, I don't have any special advice to offer on the subject of first impressions other than this: you have to make a compelling one. One of my writing professors advised his students to do this by ensuring "your first sentence puts your own soul in jeopardy." I think what he meant by this was that the opening had to suggest something that touched a lightning rod within the writer; something that might even skate close to an idea or theme that troubles your sleep. When I was working on my novel JANEOLOGY, the questions that kept me up at night were: Aren't there signs when someone is about to have a mental break-down? And if so, wouldn't a person's spouse see the approaching storm? So for this work, my opening was: "I stared at my attorney as he began his defense that I did not share the blame in the murder of my son."

I think there's no better way to learn the art of the literary first impression than to read as many opening lines as possible and see how they hit you.

So, I'd like to invite everyone to contribute the first line of his/her work-in-progress in the comments section of this post. Don't be shy! Several of us at What Women Write will get the party started. Here are the first lines of our works-in-progress.

- - -

Martha Niles glanced at the stack of afternoon mail, still untouched on the table. The top envelope, identical to several others she had received over the past few months, bore the signature orb and cross logo of the Roycroft Shops in East Aurora. This one was addressed to Sarah Wainwright, her mother. – from THE OAK LOVERS by Kim Bullock

My mother once told me: Never date a man you wouldn’t marry. This followed on the heels of: You’re never fully dressed until you smile. Like most of her pearls of wisdom, I pretended to pay attention and then did whatever I pleased. - from WAITING TO KNOCK by Pamela Hammonds

Here is something you have to learn on your own: Not every person responds to words the same way. For example, my father shouted, got red in the face and told me not to call my mother crazy even though she tried to kill me. But I looked up crazy in the dictionary so I know I’m right.. - from TELL ME IN YOUR OWN WORDS by Karen Harrington

When we first met, a decade and a handful of change ago, I was hateful to Dorrie. She thought it was because of the color of her skin, but she was wrong. Up around eighty or so – maybe even seventy – a person forgets to use her filters. Or she’s beyond caring. - from ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE by Julie Kibler

I actually met Mac at the supermarket, so there goes any justification for disdain at my mother picking up men there. Still. This is hardly the same thing. For one, we weren’t lingering over a dish of chana masala, but in the regular, non-fragrant American supermarket, skimming blueberry muffin mixes, which are about as un-Indian as you can get if you think about it. - from KICK PUNCH BREATHE by Elizabeth Lynd

Gabriel Tucci felt the walls constrict, remembered each stroke of graphite on parchment, each thwack of setting maul to stone above the nave. No fat lemons, no olive trees, no grappa; when you seek a city of buildings and straight lines, do not be surprised when you are stabbed in the heart. - from THE ARCHITECT AT HIGHGATE by Joan Mora


Okay, now it's YOUR turn. Share YOUR first lines and/or tell me if there's a book with an opening that left a lasting first impression.


Three Writing Resources to Help Craft Your First Impressions

1. The 100 Best First Lines of Novels according to the American Book Review.
2. A cool selection and analysis of opening lines from famous novels featured on
3. Susan Ishmael-Poulos' must-read piece on great beginnings.


  1. Long ago, in a kingdom far away, in a tower high above the muddy squalor of the land, a young queen gave birth to a baby girl. Princess Rosemarie was said to be the most beautiful child ever born in the known world. Queen Hildegard was the first to say it, and her "known world" consisted of her family's fiefdoms and the court of Vepreskastel, where she had reigned for nearly two years. King Eduard seconded, which made it official. -from SLEEPING BEAUTY AND THE BEAST OF VEPRESKASTEL

    One of my favorite first lines is from SPEAK, MEMORY by Vladimir Nabokov: "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness."

  2. He gripped the pages in a hand rigid with rage, knuckles whiter than the white of the paper. “Since coming to Heraldsgreen, you have thought of nothing but this book. You are not a writer,” he said, so angry his mouth could barely shape the words. His lips trembled almost as much as the sheets in his hand. “This has to end.” With that, he tossed the pages in the fire. From THE SHADOW SCRIBE

    For me, the first line of Pride and Prejudice is amazing. It sets the tone and alerts you to the plot immediately.

  3. Genie - Thanks for sharing. Your opening definitely paints a picture. And now you make me want to go read some Nabokov!

    Jenna - Great action opening. And I agree with you about P&P - one of the all-time best openers. Thanks for sharing yours!

  4. "Kate Chabeau stared down at the sweaty blond man working feverishly between her thighs and waited to die."

    From my RITA nominated book: HEAT OF THE MOMENT.

    And it's not what you think. *G* There's a bomb under the seat of her car.

  5. "Being drunk in front of your child is number one on the Big Bad No-no list of motherhood."

    ~From my third novel, THE EVERY OTHER MOTHER, recently purchased by Atria/Simon & Schuster.

    The book tells the story of a woman coming to terms with her alcoholism during a custody battle for her son.

  6. Diana - And that's how the book STARTS!? Wow. I'd say that's a winner of a hook. Thanks for stopping by.

    Amy - That's another great opener that gives a flavor of the story. I'll have to check it out. Thanks!

  7. He came into town on the day I turned seventeen. Just sort of blew in, like a leaf scudding in front of the hot, August wind. I sat on the porch of Sanderson’s Dry Goods store sipping a Nehi orange soda and kicked my legs, letting my feet churn up the powdery dust that swirled around me and settled on my legs. I looked over the top of the paper straw I’d stuck in the soda bottle and watched him coming up the main road of town. Tall and broad-shouldered, he stooped under the weight of a pack on his back. He wore a brown floppy-looking hat. Everything was brown.

    Opening lines from my WIP, On Yonder Bright Mountain. I'm hoping your site will encourage me to take my WIP to the finish line! Thanks for inspiring!

  8. The world change on August 3rd, 1993. For me, the moment was listening to my answering machine when I came home early from work that day. For Sean, it was his body making a statement of war and surrender.
    Memoir, "Out Of Breath" by Lindsey Henderson

  9. Karen - Your first sentence is one that makes me want to keep reading b/c I know there's going to be a reason this character recalls her 17th b-day. (And I secretly love the word scudding!) I hope you'll let me know when you've finished your WIP. Thanks for stopping by today!

    Lindsey - I like how your opening plants us in a very specific time. Also, I think you hit a universal touchstone here - how many of us have received life-changing news on an answering machine? I know I have. Thanks for contributing!

  10. wila halbert23 April, 2010

    “You know Taylor, you are so beautiful. I sometimes forget what a dumb kid you can be.” She did not know how to respond so when he leaned against the car door and pulled her close she allowed their Saturday night ritual to continue, starting with the snap on her blue jeans.

    Much later when he dropped her home they kissed good night at the door. Taylor watched from the living room window as he walked to his car. It took many years but eventually she realized how fortunate she was that as he walked to his car he walked out of her life.

  11. It was like leaping off a ten-meter platform when you’re terrified of heights. Easy, really.

    Opening line from my YA wip.

    Great post. I do the occasion novel review on my blog, and have started to include the first sentence of the book. Since my blog is predominantly followed by writers, it's a great exercise to help them see how important the first sentence is in grabbing the reader's attention.

  12. Wila - Great example of getting a character on the page ASAP. I already formed a strong reaction to the character via that dialog. Thanks for stopping by!

    Stina - You captured a universal feeling there. Great job. I'll have to check out your blog, too!

  13. I want to thank you all for your web-site and for giving me the courage to start finishing a manuscript that I put away a long time ago. Writing about the death of my son is painful, of course, but I need to finish what I started. You all have given me such strength to go on with it and I can't thank you enough. I even started a blog so I can be accountable to the process. Much thanks, Lindsey (

  14. "By the time N left, running out of he house one evening with nothing but the clothes on his back and a voluminous gym bag, I had loved him for seven years. The die was cast." Split: A Memoir of Divorce, by Suzanne Finnamore.

    I was always a writer, but mostly of letters and only for myself. I've started a blog and am working on a memoir. I love this blog! It gives to inspiration and courage to press on! Thank you ladies!

  15. My2Cents -
    There was a 1970s song that had the lyric, "I've written you letters that I'd like to send, if you'd just send one to me. (Maybe by BREAD??) Anywhoo, your opening and comments about your writing reminded me of that sentiment. I think people write secret letters all the time. Intriguing premise and great title! Keep us posted on your progress.

  16. "When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem's fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn't have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.

    When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out."

    Opening lines from my favorite book of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

  17. Gail -

    Nice! Few books hold up to this one, which is one of my all time faves, too. Thanks for adding it to our list.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...