Monday, June 24, 2013

9 Raising Questions with Your First Line by Emma Trevayne

Today's guest is Emma Trevayne. Her first novel, Coda, released in May 2013 and will be followed by Chorus in Spring 2014. She is represented by Brooks Sherman of FinePrint Literary Management.


I think it probably says something that I'm here to talk about great first lines in novels, and I've changed the first line of this post three times.

First lines of anything are pretty tough. You want to deliver an emotional kick, but say something readers can immediately relate to, or picture, or at the very least understand with absolutely no context. You want to make people read all the sentences that come after the first one, and first impressions count. It's no wonder that this is something writers agonize over. I definitely did.

And in the end, all of my rewriting and tweaking of that first sentence didn't matter, because almost all of the first chapter got cut once my book had an editor. What is now the first line of Coda was a line I originally barely even thought about. They were just the words that needed to happen in that moment.

They are: I’m drawn toward the door.

That’s it. But what door? Who is speaking? What’s on the other side? I hope readers will want to find out. To read the next line: I can’t hear it yet, but I can feel it. Hear what? Feel what?

First lines need to raise questions.

Since I became part of the publishing world, I have often heard people say that writers should, as a matter of course, cut the first sentence, or paragraph, or even up to the first few chapters, because they tend to be full of things the reader doesn’t need to know yet. I’m not sure I agree with that completely--that it should be routine to do so--but I do kind of agree with the sentiment. So much fiddling with a first sentence can overcook it and turn it into something that is trying to sound like A First Sentence instead of the beginning of a story.

So that's probably the most important thing I've learned, and the best advice I can give: Your first sentence should be the words that need to happen right there, right where the story starts. They should feel right. Sometimes, this means that they're the words you don't think about at all, don't agonize over because you don't need to. And those right words should ask more questions than they answer.

Coda was my first book and the one that got me published. Did I apply the above to the opening line of my second? Well, kind of. I actually wrote the first sentence months before I knew what book it would belong to. In bed, half asleep, a sentence came to me and I wrote it in the notepad on my phone. Four months later, it became the first line of another book, and then I added a prologue, so it’s no longer the very first line of the story, but it is still the first line of chapter one. It is, again, a line I didn’t stress about too much. It was a lightning bolt of inspiration and one I didn’t question. That’s what seems to work for me.

Now, I get to talk about other books that I think have amazing openings, which I have to say is going to be my favorite part of this whole post. Two of them are fairly recent favorites, a third is one of my oldest favorites and arguably one of the reasons Coda exists as a book at all.

1. My father was a king and the son of kings. ~ The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. I love the evocative simplicity of this. You know the narrator is a prince, but not of where or what. There is grandness in those ten words. The language is a perfect match to the subject matter and I want to read on in the hope that every sentence that follows is as beautiful. (Spoiler, they were. That book is stunning.)

2. Feathers fell from the sky. Like black snow, they drifted onto an old city called Bath. They whirled down the roofs, gathered in the corners of the alleys, and turned everything dark and silent, like a winter’s day. ~ The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann. This might be cheating a little, because Stefan is both a friend and a co-author on a book, but he was neither of those things when I read this opening and nearly decided to go be an alpaca farmer instead of a writer.

3. The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. ~ Neuromancer by William Gibson. You know where you are--a port, or near one--and you can picture that sky. You can taste it, that dull grayness that tastes like static. You’re wondering about the strange juxtaposition between nature and technology, which makes it an absolutely perfect opening to possibly the most famous work of cyberpunk fiction ever written.

About the Author

Emma Trevayne is the author of Coda (Running Press Teens, out now), Chorus (Running Press Teens, Spring 2014), Flights and Chimes and Mysterious Times (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Summer 2014), and ¼ of The Cabinet of Curiosities (Harper/Greenwillow, Summer 2014), an anthology of short, dark fiction for middle grade readers. On the rare occasions when she’s not writing, she’s listening to music, traveling, or hunting for her next pair of shoes.

Check out Emma's blog
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About the Book

Ever since he was a young boy, music has coursed through the veins of eighteen-year-old Anthem—the Corp has certainly seen to that. By encoding music with addictive and mind-altering elements, the Corp holds control over all citizens, particularly conduits like Anthem, whose life energy feeds the main power in the Grid.

Anthem finds hope and comfort in the twin siblings he cares for, even as he watches the life drain slowly and painfully from his father. Escape is found in his underground rock band, where music sounds free, clear, and unencoded deep in an abandoned basement. But when a band member dies suspiciously from a tracking overdose, Anthem knows that his time has suddenly become limited. Revolution all but sings in the air, and Anthem cannot help but answer the call with the chords of choice and free will. But will the girl he loves help or hinder him?

Emma Trevayne's dystopian debut novel is a little punk, a little rock, and plenty page-turning.

Buy Coda on Amazon
Find Coda on Goodreads


  1. Thank you for this lovely post, Emma! I love the approach to opening lines. You're absolutely right about using questions to lead the reader into the story. And I love your examples! Plus CODA sounds marvelous.

  2. Fantastic examples, Emma. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Nicole,

      They are great examples, but I love: I am drawn to the door best of all. It leaves so much unanswered. :)

  3. GOod examples and I love the fact that an opening line should raise questions. But also, not to overwork it too. Fine balance.

    1. Hi Carol,

      It is a balancing act, as with everything else about writing. I think we fiction writers are as much orchestra conductors as anything else.

  4. "Your first sentence should be the words that need to happen right there, right where the story starts."

    This is perfect advice. Thank you.

    I'm with you on example #2. How much do alpaca farmers make, anyway...?

    1. Hi Stacey,

      I love that too. So often, I struggle with trying to find what will be the right thing to convey to the reader, but this puts the focus squarely where it should be: on the story.

  5. I do love that opening line from Neuromancer. I remember it making an impression on me when I first read it. Wonderful examples. :)

    1. Isn't that line fantastic? I love how Emma broke it down into something as simple as leading the reader in with a question.

      Thanks for stopping by, and have a great week!


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