Monday, April 15, 2013

2 Write a Killer First Line by Karen Finneyfrock

When I’m not writing young adult fiction, (my debut novel, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door came out on Viking Children’s Books in 2013), I’m teaching creative writing through a program called Writers in the Schools.

Although I’ve taught every age group you came name, and maybe a few you can’t, I’ve focused my fiction lessons on one group of elementary-aged students in Port Townsend, Washington. I’ve taught the same group as third, fourth and fifth graders, and although the lessons are literally elementary, they apply to the adult writer.

Whether the focus is on fiction, memoir or personal narrative, the same lesson applies to all three: you’ve got to have a killer first line!

I like to start by showing them some classics.

“All children, except one, grow up.”
Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

“See how those six word peek your interest?” I say to students. “What are you curious about already?”

“’Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.”
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

“Who’s Jo?” I might ask after showing the kids this one. We usually agree that Jo might be pretty important to the story, since she is mentioned by name in the first line. Here’s an example of a first line that doesn’t concentrate so much on character, but gives us a immediate jolt of action and setting.

“For many days we had been tempest-tossed. “
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss

From these examples, I like to move to a longer opening line with more detail and complexity.

“Once on a dark winter's day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night, an odd-looking little girl sat in a cab with her father and was driven rather slowly through the big thoroughfares.”
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

This line has a healthy dose of setting, character and mood. The detail that seems to indicate the focal point in this line is the phrase, “odd-looking.” It’s tough not to find yourself curious about this little girl. A good opening line often provides some hint as to the nature of the story. Will it be a character-driven story? How important is the setting? What is the mood of the story: dark and mysterious or sweet and whimsical? When it comes to contemporary titles, appropriate for older readers, I was hooked as a reader after just the first line of Weetzie Bat.

“The reason Weetzie Bat hated high school was because no one understood.”
Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block

A great opening line should plant a question in the reader’s mind. “Why is this character named Weetzie Bat?” I wonder. “Is she really a bat?” My students ask. How can you stop reading a book with a question like that already taking root? Here’s a less dramatic beginning to a gorgeously written book.

“It’s the first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache.”
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

I think this first line gives us a taste of the narrator’s voice, which is arguably the most important aspect of Speak, a novel about a girl losing and regaining her voice due to trauma. Another contemporary title with a strong narrator, and one that can shock and delight school children is this one.

“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”
Feed by M.T. Anderson

When teaching about opening lines in young adult novels, I find myself surprised and inspired by how much authors are able to do with those first impressions. It was important to me in the writing of my YA novel, whose opening lines are these:

“At fourteen I turned Dark. Now I’m Celia that Dark.”
The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door by Karen Finneyfrock

And, as for my all-time favorite opening line, I’ll have to go with this one.

"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
Charlotte's Web by E.B. White

About the Author

Karen Finneyfrock is a poet, novelist and teaching artist in Seattle, WA. Her young adult novel, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door, was published by Viking Children’s Books in 2013. Her second book of poems, Ceremony for the Choking Ghost, was released on Write Bloody press in 2010. She is a former Writer-in-Residence at Richard Hugo House in Seattle and teaches for Seattle Arts and Lectures’ Writers-in-the-Schools program. In 2010, Karen traveled to Nepal as a Cultural Envoy through the US Department of State to perform and teach poetry and in 2011, she did a reading tour in Germany sponsored by the US Embassy.

Check out Karen's Website
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About the Book

Celia Door enters her freshman year with giant boots, dark eyeliner, and a thirst for revenge against Sandy Firestone, the girl who did something unspeakable to Celia last year.

Then Celia meets Drake, the cool new kid from New York City who entrusts her with his deepest secret. When Celia’s quest for justice threatens her relationship with Drake, she’s forced to decide which is sweeter: revenge or friendship.

Buy The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door on Amazon
Find The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door on Goodreads


  1. Great first line examples. Thank you for sharing :)

  2. I've always cottoned to the Peter Pan and Charlotte's Web leads. Another fave is: "The regular early morning yell of horror was the sound of Arthur Dent waking up and suddenly remembering where he was." from Life,the Universe and Everything - 3rd book of Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Trilogy.


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