Cause and Effect Is a Powerful Thing – How to Make Awesome First Lines

I started writing about first lines last week and I promised I’d write a bit more about it.

And here’s the thing: the first line of your novel starts the cause and effect that becomes your book.

That’s a big deal thing.

Look at this first line. You know things are weird. You know that something is about to happen on this bright, cold April day.

Every Step Of Your Story Is Important

In her book, What’s Your Story: A Young Person’s Guide to Writing Fiction, Marion Dane Bauer writes, “Every part of your story should be an essential step along the way to the outcome.” (p.53)

Just like in books, we create the story that is our life. We interact. We make decisions. We decide to do one thing and that thing makes something else happen. 

This Is True In Real Life Too

There’s a girl in my life who doesn’t understand this concept. She does things – often naughty things – and doesn’t think through to the next step, poor kid.

We’re always talking about consequences for behavior. We’re always talking about how you have to think through what you’re doing and go on to the next step.

“When you ran away from the teacher and hid under the stairs, what did you think is going to happen?” we ask.

And the answer is always, “I didn’t really think about it.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson with the quotable quote win here.

Authors Don’t Get to Be Human

As authors creating plot, we don’t have that opportunity. We always have to think through to the next step and the step after that. The cool thing about this is that it builds our understanding of not just the world of our stories, but the whole world around us.

Authors aren’t likely to become politicians talking about pushing nuclear buttons. 

There’s a reason for that. 

It’s because as creators of story, we understand all the possibilities of that story – the good and the bad. We know if we hide from the teacher, there is going to be hell to pay. We  know if we threaten other world leaders on Twitter, things might go down that we can’t control. 

Most humans who aren’t writers understand cause and effect, too.

Like in my house, in the case of Marsie the Cat, her humans know that smoothing back her ears so she looks like an adorable owl means that she is going to hate us for an hour, hop off our lap, and ignore us. 

It’s hard to be Marsie the Cat.

See up there? That’s Marsie about to hate us. Fortunately, we also know that we can win back her love with the illegal drug called catnip.

Back to Cause and Effect and Plots

Sorry! Back to writing and the brilliant Marion Dane Bauer.

“You must always be aware of what your main character is thinking, feeling, wanting. You must also know how the world looks, smells, sounds, tastes and feels to the touch. Good writing uses all the sense, all of them. Good fiction uses them from inside your main character.” (p. 93)

Marion Dane Bauer

When we read, magic happens. We move inside other characters, embody them, become their experience. That’s part of the reason why we need so many stories out there. The more stories, the more experiences, the more magic.

But also, when we write? Magic happens. We move inside other characters, embody them, become them. That’s part of the reason why writers need to be diligent and build their worlds, piece-by-piece, symbol-by-symbol and word-by-word.

That’s especially true when we’re writing for kids and young adults. Kids are smart. They deserve stories built with empathy, precision, and love. But so do the rest of us humans.

Back to First Lines

The first line of your novel, short story, blog, essay? That line sets the tone for the book, hooks the reader in, and begins the cause and effect that starts your story. It’s important. Make it a good one.

Gabby the Dog’s Writing Exercise of Awesome.

Gabby is adorable.

Write a letter to your friend or the president or somebody. The letter is all about what happens in your story. You’ve got this! Go! 

Once you’ve got it done, give yourself a treat. Gabby’s favorite reward-snack is Milk-Bones. She’s a traditionalist. 

And now go back. Look at that first line. Did it hook the reader in?


FIRST LINE ADVICE

Make your first line surprising like Orwell’s or mysterious

“First the colors.
Then the humans. 
That’s usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.”

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak


Make it shocking or funny.


You Can Make It About Character, But Give It a Twist

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis 

Humor, shock, drama, emotional high stakes, mysteries? These are the elements that almost always keep the readers make it to the end of that first line and then the first paragraph. But the key is that it also has to fit with the rest of the story.


LET’S HANG OUT!

HEY! DO YOU WANT TO SPEND MORE TIME TOGETHER?

JUST CLICK ON THIS LINK AND FIND OUT HOW WE CAN.

NEW BOOK ALERT!

My little novella (It’s spare. It’s sad) is out and it’s just $1,99. It is a book of my heart and I am so worried about it, honestly.

There’s a bit more about it here.


Carrie Jones Books is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com

slow cooker cheesy garlic herb mashed potatoes of first line anxiety

Things might not be going all that well here at the Jones-Farrar household. Between NaNoWriMo, remote schooling, COVID, being trapped with each other and not travelling for ten months?

I’ve got some writers block and a need for starch. Keto be damned. It’s almost Thanksgiving in the U.S.

How about you?

Print Recipe
slow cooker cheesy garlic herb mashed potatoes of first lines
Cooking With a Writer
Course side dish
Cuisine american
Servings
Ingredients
Course side dish
Cuisine american
Servings
Ingredients
Cooking With a Writer
Instructions
  1. Look writer, you need to get things started. It is almost Thanksgiving in the U.S. and you signed up for National Novel Writing Month, which means you have to write 50,000 words.
  2. You have written none.
  3. That’s because you can’t think of a first line.
  4. You are having first line anxiety. This is normal. This is very writer of you.
  5. So, be even more of a writer about this and procrastinate by cooking potatoes in a slow cooker.
  6. Put the potatoes, parmesan rind (if you have something that fancy) heavy cream, milk, garlic, and sage into the slow cooker.
  7. Um. Plug it in, honey. It needs electricity.
  8. Okay, now put the cover on and press the numbers for either high (4-5 hours) or low (6-8 hours).
  9. Stare at your computer’s blank document for all that time, trying to be all Hemingway and create the perfect sentence.
  10. Give up and check on the potatoes.
  11. Are they fork tender?
  12. If yes? Coolio. Turn the heat to warm. If not? Cook more and check again.
  13. Drain potatoes. Do not burn yourself. Do not drain the cream.
  14. Throw out the herbs and rind. Like adverbs, they have served their purpose in this first draft and you are CUT CUT CUTTING them out.
  15. Put the potatoes through a ricer or mash them.
  16. Put them back in the pot. If you go the mashing route, you can do this in the pot to make less dishes. Less dishes equals happier writers.
  17. Add that 1.5 cups of cream you didn’t toss. Add the butter.
  18. Does it not look right? Add more cream until it does. The potatoes are like a first sentence. You’ve got to revise it until it’s snazzy.
  19. Add salt and pepper to snaz it up.
  20. Now, enter the world of best sellers and add cheese. Look at you, you rock star! Stir it up. Put the cover on. Cook for 15 minutes. The cheese should be melted.
  21. They can stay this way for four hours.
  22. Eat them.
Recipe Notes

This recipe is adapted from one of my favorite cooking sites in the universe. The Half Baked Harvest. Head over there to see the recipe in non-writer (sane human) form and the variations for insta pot and stove.

Making Powerful First Lines

Everyone talks about first lines and how important they are for establishing voice, setting the tone, hooking your reader and never letting go.

It’s intriguing to see how first lines change or don’t. I checked out some of my first and last lines from my books and they are below and we’ll be talking about first lines for a few posts. This is just the first one.

But before we do, let me ask:

Do you have any favorites from books?

What was it that grabbed you?

Do you do that in your own books?

How Do You Make A Powerful First Line? What are the Traits?

  • You make it mysterious.
  • You make it have a strong voice.
  • You make it surprising.
  • You make it goofy or funny.
  • You make it understandable.
  • You make it authentic.

Here are Some Examples From My Books

Mostly they show how my first lines changed or didn’t. And how they met those above qualities or didn’t. Just like all of you, I’ve learned and evolved or devolved during these years.

Tips on Having a Gay (ex) Boyfriend

Original:
He wants to know why it happens.

Final:
He wants to know why it happens.


Love (and other uses for duct tape)

Original:

You think you know people and then it turns out you don’t.

Final:

You think you know people and then it turns out you don’t.


Girl, Hero

Original:
Dear, Mr. Wayne, My mother’s got a man coming to see her.

Final:
Dear, Mr. Wayne, My mother’s got a man coming to see her.

Need (2009):

Original: My parents drove me to the airport with the air conditioner on full blast.

Current: Everybody has fears, right?

TIME STOPPERS

Original: The dog raced through the Maine woods, keeping up with the little car speeding down the rural road.

Revision For a Long Time: “Remember, you’re not special, Annie,” Mrs. Betsey said.

Final: “Remember , you’re not special, Annie,” Mrs. Betsey told the small girl next to her as they stood on the rickety wooden step of the trailer.



Weird (not published yet, YA paranormal)


Original: Blake and I lie naked on the grass in my backyard, looking up at the sky and we’re all lazy feeling, because, yes, we had sex, and no, having sex is not a big deal.

Current: Blake and I lie naked on the grass in my backyard, looking up at the sky and we’re all lazy feeling, because, yes, we had sex, and no, having sex is not a big deal.

Flying:


Original: I wake up scared.
Current: I wake up scared

The Fae (not published yet, MG fantasy)

Original: The first cat shuddered and stalked through the yard to sit under the biggest maple tree. 


Current: Somebody had locked him in.


How about you? Have you ever gone back and looked at your first lines then and now. It’s kind of scary. Seriously. Do you want to share?


Sharing is good.


LET’S HANG OUT!

HEY! DO YOU WANT TO SPEND MORE TIME TOGETHER?

JUST CLICK ON THIS LINK AND FIND OUT HOW WE CAN.


NEW BOOK ALERT!

My little novella (It’s spare. It’s sad) is out and it’s just $1,99. It is a book of my heart and I am so worried about it, honestly.

There’s a bit more about it here.

CARRIE’S TEACHABLE CLASS!

I have a quick, pre-recorded Teachable class designed to make you a killer scene writer in just one day. It’s fun. It’s fast. And you get to become a better writer for just $25, which is an amazing deal.

Carrie Jones Books is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com