Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Writing the First Line

Writing the First Line
By Jeff Bennington

As an author I’ve learned that the most important part of any book is the first few words, the first line, and of course the first paragraph and chapter. If I can’t bait a reader with my prose and hook their attention from the beginning, I might as well pack up my writing gear and head for the hills. In the world of literature where thousands of books are published every day, readers have an abundance of choices and mine is one of many, like a solitary vapor swirling over Niagara Falls. 

If I can’t grab a reader from the very beginning and get them excited about my story, I might as well fahgetaboutit.

Once I’m into the story, and parts of speech start flying like trimmed shrubbery, I can install new chapters for hours at a time. But when it’s all said and over with, it’s the beginning that I come back to. It’s the first impression. It’s my only opportunity to get a reader interested. It has to be perfect. It has to be compelling and it has to attack with bear-trap-like strength.

In a May 14, 2004 issue of psychology today, Carlin Flora states that, “Our brains form first impressions by creating a composite of all the signals given off by a new experience.” When someone reads my work, they are entering into a new experience, a new world with my name stamped on it. I want their first impression  to be, “Wow! This is good!”

When Bill and Hillary Clinton discuss how they met at Yale's law library, they tell how after staring and flirting with each other Hillary finally walked up to Bill and said, "Look, if you're going to keep staring at me, and I'm going to keep staring back, we might as well be introduced. I'm Hillary Rodham. What's your name?" It’s said that Bill couldn't remember his name, but that’s another story.

From an artist’s perspective, I want you to remember my name: Jeff Bennington, the guy who writes incredibly engaging thrillers. From a business perspective, I need you to remember my name. And that’s why I work so hard on the first line.

To demonstrate what I’m talking about, I’ll show you a few of my first lines from my novels, lines that I hope will nudge you to the next paragraph and to the next chapter and finally to the very end.
Reunion (Now available):
David Ray stood in front of his mirror, dressed to kill. I look good, he thought, like the real deal, like a real killer. He narrowed his eyes, grit his teeth and unfolded his checklist. Sharp blades of black hair dangled in front of his face, covering the brownish rings that encircled his eyes. He peered at his scribbled writing and read the list as he felt his insides tense with hatred.

Act of Vengeance (Coming late 2011):
Detective Rick Burns raced into the upscale neighborhood, slammed on the brakes, and stepped out of his rusty red Pontiac. He peered into the night as the crowd gathered, took a deep breath, and prayed to God that this murder would not be like the others. The heaviness, the blood, the darkness had finally pricked its sharp edge into his soul. Red and blue lights enveloped his body and danced across the frightened neighbors who had gathered together, shaking and shivering. The car door let out a lingering squeak as he slammed it shut and he hurried toward the crime scene.

Federal Underground (Coming Late 2012):
My legs strained up the dark and musty mineshaft as I ran from the depths of the federal underground. My left hand scraped the rocky edges, caking my fingernails with dirt and decades of filth. Every step I took injected a cold burn into my lungs; every breath thrust me beyond the point of exhaustion and terror. My red jump suit smelled of the world below and clung to my skin, wet and ragged. I stopped running for a moment, sucked in a life-giving inhalation and rested my body on the earthen wall. I tried to forget, but the images were too strong, too frightening to escape.
In my opinion, and in the opinion of the authors and editors who have taught me how to weave a harrowing tale, an author must place the reader directly in the heart of the action. Some authors spread out the details of setting and back story like a picnic blanket, the foundation on which the main course will be enjoyed.  In the case of thrillers and suspense, however, I prefer action.

My goal as a thriller writer is to throw the reader into a story that screams, “What is going on here? Why is David Ray dressed to kill? What is Detective Burns about to get himself into? What is the federal underground and what did he see there? Questions need answered, and I find that if the first few lines have a compelling character with adequate tension, a reader will want to discover the answers. Besides, if I can’t get you interested in reading beyond page one, why even bother with the rest of the book? The first lines are that important to me.

It isn’t until after you decide to read on, that I’ve earned your trust as an author.
After all, If I’m going ask you to give me money and dedicate hours of your precious time into my words, they better be good, especially the first line. BOOM!

Thanks for reading.  – Jeff Bennington


  1. You said "fahgetaboutit," thereby, you are awesome and I will believe anything you said. :)

  2. I struggle with first lines, often writing a dozen before selecting one simply to be able to move forward. Of course, that line changes a zillion times throughout the writing and editing process. I often find myself exploring the first line/beginning extensively once the entire piece has been drafted.

  3. KD...That's I'm laughing my keester off!

    Paul, You are doing the right thing. That's why writing is so hard. Even if you are a decisive person, it's still hard to make it perfect... An impossible in retrospect.


  4. My first paragraph is deceptively, intentionally dull. The very first sentence:

    No one in the neighborhood knew the genus of that old tree.

    But chapter one starts off with a murder so I hope it interests people because.... Officer Blackbear thinks the tree did it.
    The tree ain't talkin'.

  5. RL..That is actually a brilliant first line. A tree brilliant? Why? How? Who wouldn't want to discover the story behind that!

    My only question...did they not know the genus, as in type, or is that suposed to be genius, as in higher intelligence? Either one is still captivating to the thinking mind.

  6. Oh. Well..heh. Thanks! The genus - as in the type, yes. It's a thread running through the whole story and becomes an "in character joke". It also um... *coughhasahigherintellectcough* But I'm working on the first 3 chapters for my website. Ugh! Was supposed to be done with it 2 weeks ago. Will let you know when it's up and running!

  7. I came across your blog thanks to the Facebook group "Writers Helping Writers." I really enjoyed reading this post. I find the beginning of my novels and stories the easiest to write. I love grabbing someone by the shirt and screaming "READ ME!" It is the stuft that follows that I struggle with. Anyway, I wanted to tell you I enjoyed each of your novel openings. I want to tell you that I was most interested in "Federal Underground" (based on the opening).


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