The Importance of First Lines: Why Revision Should Begin at the Beginning
Did you know agents might not read beyond your first line? As a hopeful novelist, clutching a newly-completed first draft and wondering where to start with revision, I was aware that the opening pages of a novel were important, but I didn’t realize how crucial first lines could be until I met Sorche Fairbank, agent and Grub Street instructor.
As a Grub Street newb, I had no idea what to expect when I signed up for the “Your First Five Pages” one-day class, and had recursive nightmare visions of a hard-nosed, business-savvy agent tearing up my work into tiny shards and telling me I’d never be a writer. Sorche was certainly business savvy, but she was also generous with her insight and expertise, cluing us all up on the murky world of agent querying, what agents look for in a novel sample, and how to carve our opening pages into something that might just catch an agent’s eye.
So – those all-important first lines. One of the most valuable lessons I took away from the class was not to assume that agents will read beyond the first sentence. Some agents will base their decision about our work on the slim cluster of words we typed at the top of page one, and if they don’t demand to be noticed, that killer piece of literary brilliance we’ve got hidden on page four may never be seen at all.
Using examples of classics like Jane Eyre and Nineteen Eighty-Four, Sorche showed us that first lines can and should establish voice, create a sense of urgency and tension, set the mood, or make use of multitudinous other ways to introduce the reader to your work, capture their attention, and urge them to read on.
I started the day with a mushy first line that referenced The Sound of Music and Frankenstein, neither of which had anything to do with the narrative, and served only to confuse the reader, forcing them to go back and read over, to try and understand the meaning. Now, my draft begins with a passage I had secreted away on page nine that instantly establishes the protagonist’s voice, which will be one of the driving forces of the story.
Sorche also talked to us about how not to kick-off a novel. Among this extensive list were devices like: flashbacks, starting with dialogue, dream scenes, waking up scenes, and an older, wiser person reflecting on their life. This is not to say that we categorically can’t do any of these things, and there are countless works of classic literature that seem to violate these guidelines, but we should be aware that they often don’t work for the contemporary novelist hopeful.
For example, I’m currently reading Robinson Crusoe for a literature class, which begins, “I was born in the Year 1632, in the city of York, of a good Family,” and is written in the voice of an older Crusoe looking back (one of Sorche’s big no-nos). If, like me, you have a penchant for the classics, you might be tempted to emulate your literary heroes, but doing so may well alienate agents, who are looking for something fresh.
Of course, the first line isn’t the only important landmark to consider when querying. By page five, the agent wants to know where the story is headed, and by page twenty-five (the length of a partial), they need to be hooked; they need to feel like they have to read on. Heading into revision, I will be keeping these milestones in mind, making sure the draft hints at the narrative arc and invests the reader in the story early, before future agents might decide to toss my query on the rejection heap.
After the class with Sorche, I realized that those of us contemplating the daunting aspect of the slush pile need to work hard at making our manuscripts noticed right from the get-go. The agent wants to know they’re in good hands, and we need to show them we have control over our material, that we know exactly how we want the reader to experience the fictional world we’ve created.
If, as I did, you feel like you haven’t got a clue where to start with revision, read through your first chapter again – is there a sentence that jumps off the page, sparkling with voice, tension, or that attention-centering palpability that James Wood refers to as “thisness”? That might just be your new beginning.
Editor's note: Check out more of Sorche's upcoming workshops at grubstreet.org.
Colwill is an instructor and manuscript consultant at GrubStreet, an associate editor at Bat City Review, and an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating a scholarship awardee of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, Colwill found representation for her first novel, Before We Tear Our Selves Apart, with Robert Guinsler of Sterling Lord Literistic, which is currently on submission to publishing houses. She is the recipient of the Wellspring House Emerging Writer Fellowship, the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize, and a Crawley-Garwood Research Grant, and has received fellowships and support from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The University of Texas at Austin, Boston College, Kansas State University, the Anderson Center for Disciplinary Studies, and GrubStreet. She was a finalist for the 2019 Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize, the 2019 Reynolds Price Award, the 2019 Far Horizons Fiction Award, the 2019 Disquiet International Literary Prize, and the 2019 Lit Fest Emerging Writer Fellowship. Colwill’s fiction is forthcoming in Granta and is anthologized in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53). She has served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine, The Conium Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, and Pangyrus magazine. Colwill is a founding member of the Back Porch Collective, a Boston-based group of writers. With members connected to Cuba, India, Albania, Atlanta, Bosnia, Miami, Jamaica, and the UK, they bonded over a common passion for global narratives and literature’s potential to create empathy and understanding across all geographical, political, and cultural borders. Hailing from Yorkshire, in the north of England, Colwill is determined to introduce the word “sozzard” to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and services, please visit colwillbrown.com.See other articles by Colwill Brown