Thursday, February 25, 2010

First Lines in a Novel

We’ve all heard that we have to have a hook, that the first line/paragraph/page must grab the reader’s attention or don’t even think you will get an editor to publish your novel. Well, while that advice is no doubt sound and certainly what we budding novelists need to aim for, an experience I had over the holidays made me question the oft-offered saw.

Our son, John, and new daughter-in-law, Faith, were visiting and given our family’s decades old focus on playing games whenever at least two of us are in a room together, we were gathered around the living room coffee table discussing game options. Faith and John play a game with their friends called, “Novel First Lines”. I offer a brief recitation of the rules here and suggest you give it a try. Great fun!

We gathered a stack of novels so that every player had more choices than number of rounds in the game and the number of players. Each player also had a writing utensil (all pens or all pencils so as not to tip off who wrote what) and paper scraps.

Each person picked shis first book (I wrote an journal article once on non-sexist pronouns; this is one) and we selected one player to begin. That player read the book blurb to us, told us the author, and any other pertinent info from the cover (National Book Award winner, etc.). Then, each player wrote what heesh thought the first line of the book could be. The blurb reader wrote the actual first line. The blurb reader mixed up all the entries submitted along with the actual first line and read them each aloud. Each person, other than the blurb reader, selected what they thought the actual first line was. A point was awarded for correctly guessing the first line and a point was awarded to the writer of detractor first lines that others erroneously selected. Play continued until all had had a chance to be blurb reader at least once, and then we did another round with a whole new group of books.

But, as a novelist, what was interesting to me was that we often picked one another’s first lines rather than the actual one. We wrote engaging hooks, for the most part. We rarely found that the author had superseded our offerings, even though we might have selected it anyway for some reason.

Playing this game was one of the best writing workshops I have participated in. Give it a try, and then go back to your novel and “play the game” again so you can rework your first lines. In fact, have your novelist friends bring along manuscripts and play the game at your next critique group meeting. You might end up with a better hook than you could do on your own.


  1. I can hardly wait to try this interesting game with my family who love words,books and creativity games. Thanks! MKP

  2. Thanks so much for reading the post. It is a very fun game. I know your literate family will love it as much as ours.