Monday, January 16, 2012

Writing the First Line

Does your first line grab your reader's attention and never let go? Do your readers get hooked immediately? Or are you losing readers because the beginning of your book is dull and slow moving?

Today I'm posting another excerpt from The Indie Author's Guide to the Universe called Writing the First Line. But before you read on, here are a few of the other topics that you'll read in this book:
  • How to build a blog tour
  • Choosing your printing press
  • Your role as marketer
  • Your role as publisher
  • Author Blogging
  • How to build an author platform
  • Selling and price-point strategies
  • How to make the best use of KDP Select Promotions
  • Daily motivation 
  • Tips from bestselling indie authors

Writing the First Line

Be original. Think oustide the box in order to raise eyebrows with your promotions.  The quality of your writing will take over from there.
~ Richard Bard, Brain Rush & Brain Rush II

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, and perhaps my only opportunity to get a reader interested. 
The beginning 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,” and then keep reading.
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 with knock-your-socks-off twists and turns. 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.
• • •
The first paragraph from Reunion:

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.

The first paragraph from Twisted Vengeance:

Detective Rick Burns raced into the upscale Indianapolis neighborhood, slammed on the brakes and stepped out of his rusty red Pontiac. He peered into the night and watched the crowd gather, took a deep breath and prayed to God that this murder would not be like the others. The heaviness, the blood and the darkness had finally pricked its sharp edge into his soul.

The first paragraph from Federal Underground (Coming 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 not get you interested in reading beyond page one, why even bother with the rest of the book?
The beginning of a novel is that important to me.
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. 

~Jeff Bennington, bestselling author of Reunion, Twisted Vengeance and Creepy


  1. What are the chances of getting The Indie Authors Guide to the Universe published today? How about yesterday?
    I'll be your first customer - if I can beat the 700,000 other indie authors out there.
    Thanks for writing the guide.

  2. Spot on! Love this post, Jeff! I'll be in line right behind Bert.

  3. @Bert~ Won't be long, Bert. I've been adding additional chapters to make this as helpful as possible. Thank you so much for your enthusiasm.

    @Jo~ Thank you. I sure will hurry… although I'm not a believer in rushing my books out the door.

  4. I didn't know just how fierce the competition was until I learned that more than 1 million ISBNs were issued last year and an estimated 800,000 books were published without one. No wonder that first line is so important, right behind the blurb that potential buyers scan on book jackets and websites before they even reach the first page...

  5. @Jack ~ Very true. There are so many pieces that have to fit together to make a book a best seller, itsn't really possible to hit every point with perfect accuracy. That's why I'm compelled to write this book. I want to help as many authors hit as many points as possible.

  6. I was reading the above and thought it was very interesting and look forward to it being published and reading it. As writers we need all the help we can get. No matter how good our writing is we can still be missed if we don't stand up and say "Hey, put that over priced book down and take a look at mine."

    could you give me your opinion on my first line please?

    He laughed at the strangers joke unaware that the killer in front of him had intentions so dark they could eclipse the sun.

  7. @TheWriter2011 ~ I'm intrigued. I tend to like darker themes, so I'm not sure how unbiased I'd be. I do wish I knew who "He" is. It's hard to care about and laugh at a joke that I didn't hear.

    Now had you said… Bill gripped the subway rail post tight and watched the sinister looking man beside him with caution. He laughed upon hearing a joke muttered by a teenager, unaware that the killer in front of him had intentions so dark they could eclipse the sun…. I may have been even MORE intrigued. But that's me. That's my opinion for what it's worth.

  8. Boy you said it. First lines are so key, and I agree that with mysteries and thrillers, you just cannot bog the reader down with back story. I remember Val McDermid talking about a conversation with her agent, where the agent said "you have all this wonderful back story about the main character - now get it out of the beginning of your book! Sprinkle it in throughout the action." So true!

  9. Hi again... thanks for that.

    This how it goes in my book.

    The young man laughed at the stranger’s joke, unaware that he was a killer with intentions so dark they could eclipse the sun. The stranger, he was attracted to the kind of childlike innocence he saw in the young mans eyes and craved to take it. However, he was a patient man and wanted more from his victims. The pair drank and talked over the hours like they had known each other for a life time. With such a conversation the night passed quickly and as they filtered out into the streets the pair disappeared into the darkness.
    Early, the next morning, Detective Jacob Middleton, a fifty three-year old man, stood over the young mans corpse. It was the twentieth he had seen like this in the five years he had been on the hunt for the stranger.
    The Roulette Killer had struck again.

  10. Getting the first line right was my biggest challenge as a writer. Couldn't get published until I licked it.


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