Amy Myers has been a full-time writer since 1988, and has written a wide range of novels, from historical sagas and contemporary romance to crime. She is married to an American and lives in Kent. Many of her novels have been published under the name of Harriet Hudson. Her latest novel is Murder in the Mist.
By indicating the novel ahead in its style, I mean that a beautiful quiet line, perhaps for example that there is a gorgeous sunset outside the window, will indicate to the readers that a thoughtful quiet novel lies ahead, rather than a rampaging thriller or erotic romp. That sounds obvious, but it’s surprising how many new writers begin with, say, the main character waking up in the morning and yawning, obviously with the intention of beginning on a quiet note before an exciting plot gets under way. With today’s busy life style, however, readers won’t give it that long before they put the novel down.
When indicating the novel’s content in the first line (or, let’s be generous, first paragraph) there are two points to consider. The first is that it should if possible indicate what’s often called ‘the inciting incident’, the point that kick-starts the whole plot. This doesn’t have to be spelled out, but it should suggest if possible that there’s a problem ahead. For instance, suppose a traveller gets stranded for the night with a broken down car (to use a hackneyed situation) and goes to a nearby haunted inn for board and lodging. Don’t begin with ‘Joe Bloggs was looking forward to his journey over the moors’, but with his desperate, if wary, knock on the door for help. His arrival at the haunted inn ignites the plot.
The second point dovetails with this in that it is more effective to begin a novel in the middle of an action, rather than with the lead-up to it. Readers always need to be taken forwards in a story, so don’t fall into the temptation of explaining in great detail after your first line how dear old Bloggs got to that point but concentrate on what he found when he stepped inside this mysterious inn. Then once you have the readers hooked in the first chapter by the exciting prospect of Joe meeting a headless Anne Boleyn’s ghost or whatever, you can then begin to slip in little by little the essentials (and only the essentials) of what the readers need to know of Joe’s background to understand the story ahead.
Lastly, genre. If readers are expecting a hard-boiled crime thriller, they won’t be thrilled to read a first line indicating that a romance lies ahead, e.g. As he knocked on the door, Joe Bloggs was wondering what Susan would say when he failed to turn up this evening. The memory of her luscious brown hair made him weak at the knees etc. These same readers would be disappointed in their hopes of gory scenes ahead on the mean streets of London, if the first line read: ‘Colonel Bloggs’ body lay on the tigerskin rug by the fireside in the library.’ Nor would that impress them if they were looking for a thoughtful novel about modern relationships. Maybe these examples are rather extreme, but I hope they make the point.
As always, Jane Austen had the art of the first line to perfection: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ Or try Dickens with his: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ I’m not suggesting that you spend ages trying to emulate Jane Austen or agonising over the first line, otherwise it will turn into a hang-up as you become self-conscious about it. I tend to use the first line that comes to me, edit it at the draft stage if it doesn’t strike the right note, and alter it again later if necessary. But it does most certainly need that TLC.