Monday, August 26, 2013

6 Start As You Mean To Go On by C.J. Daugherty

The best advice I ever heard about first lines came from a fairly famous literary agent in London. He said ‘Every book should start in the middle of something.’

He was absolutely right.

When you open a book you should feel like you walked into the room where everyone is already in the midst of a conversation, a discussion, a fight – it doesn’t really matter what they’re in the middle of. What matters is the action is underway.

As a reader, you’re caught up instantly.

My book, Night School, begins in the middle of a crime. Two teens are vandalising their school, spray-painting obscenities on their principal’s office door.

We join the story seconds before the police arrive.

“Hurry up!” is the first line.

I got there by writing all the exposition I had in my head – who the kids were, how they got to the school, where the school was – and then cutting every bit of it. Paring it down until all that was left were those two words: “Hurry up!”

The reader doesn’t need to know all that stuff yet. All they need to know is a crime is being committed. And someone is about to get busted.

The rest can be revealed over time. You have 400 pages to play with. You don’t need to dump much of anything on your readers in the first paragraph. You just need to set the stage. My book is a romantic thriller. It starts with a crime, a chase scene and an arrest.

Start as you mean to go on.

One of my favourite first lines is from City of Bones, by Cassandra Clare:

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” the bouncer said, folding his arms across his massive chest.

That’s a first line after my own heart:right in the middle of the action. The presence of a bouncer tells us where we are – a club or bar. We soon find out we’re waiting in line to get into a crowded night club in Manhattan where all hell is about to break loose for main character Clary Fray.


The first line of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor, is heavy with portent:

“Walking to school over the snow-muffled cobbles, Karou had no sinister premonitions about the day.”

That’s an elegant start. Cobbles equal Europe, so we guess we’re abroad. Snow means winter. She was going to school so we have a vague idea of her age. And what lovely use of the word, ‘sinister’. Saying she didn’t know it was there means it isthere. Lurking.

One of my favourite books is The Secret History, by Donna Tartt. I basically want to live in that book. And the first line sets the stage beautifully:

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

You don’t need to know who Bunny is, or which mountains she’s writing about, or what situation. The sense of dread is there. And you’re ready to read more.

Like I said: start as you mean to go on.

About the Author

A former crime reporter, political writer and investigative journalist, C.J. Daugherty has worked for several US newspapers, including the Dallas Morning News, and Reuters.
She quit journalism when she discovered travel writing was easier and would allow her to stay in posh hotels for free. She's written several books about travel for Time Out and Frommers.

Between book projects she also worked for the British government. But that’s another story.

Night School was her first novel. She wrote it all in one long, warmish English summer. The Night School series is now being translated into twenty languages. That fact amazes her.

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About the Book

Trust no one…

Allie Sheridan’s world is falling apart. Her brother’s run away from home. Her parents ignore her. And she’s just been arrested.


This time her parents have had enough. They cut her off from her friends and send her away to boarding school, far from her London friends.

But at Cimmeria Academy, Allie is soon caught up in the strange activities of a secret group of elite students.

When she’s attacked late one night the incident sets off a chain of increasingly violent events. As the school begins to seem like a very dangerous place, she finds out that nothing at Cimmeria is what it seems to be.

And that she is not who she thought she was.

Amazon | Indiebound | Goodreads


  1. Love the advice of that agent. And your examples of first lines are great showing of getting right into the action.

    Good luck with your book. It sounds really good.

  2. I love that advice - definitely going to use it with my students this year! The book sounds great! :)

  3. AMEN! I wish every writer heeded this advice. Usually when critiquing my first suggestion is, "Can you start this first scene here instead of there?"

  4. Thank you for such simple and good advice! I'm going to go back and start cutting out all that exposition I wrote.

  5. Great advice and wonderful first-line examples. Thanks. Your book looks terrific. Good luck with it.

  6. Great blog with wonderful examples. Thanks!


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