Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Problem of Beginning: First Lines in YA

Even though I’ve been writing my work-in-progress for years, I’m still struggling with the first line. Back when I was beginning to write with a purpose, I would go through draft after draft without writing past chapter three. It was an attempt to perfect the beginning before I went any further. That is not the way to write, because one will end up with many beginnings, but no middles or ends.

Thankfully, I’ve gotten past that. I’ve written some middles and ends but recently I circled back to the beginning. I have to get it as close to right as I can. So I’m focusing on that now, for a little bit, before I return to editing the rest.

Yesterday, I read this post from the Write Practice on writing the perfect first line. It reminded me that I shouldn’t write sentence after sentence of potential first lines without first examining how other YA books begin. So I went to my bookshelf and flipped to first page after first page. And I discovered that most of the books on my shelf had first lines that were meant to inform, intrigue or shock.

“In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind.” –Graceling, Kristin Cashore

“In life, Elizabeth Adora Holland was known not only for her loveliness but also for her moral character, so it was fair to assume that in the afterlife she would occupy a lofty seat with an especially good view.” –The Luxe, Anna Godberson

These first lines are informative, but it can be argued that they are also intriguing. I don’t disagree, but I think their primary purpose is to inform the reader about the character and the situation. Hopefully, that will be interesting enough for the reader to continue onward.

“Lynn was nine the first time she killed to defend the pond, the sweet smell of water luring the man to be picked off like the barn swallows that dared to swoop in for a drink.” -Not a Drop to Drink, Mindy McGinnis
“After a year of slavery in the Salt Mines of Endovier, Celaena Sardothien was accustomed to being escorted everywhere in shackles and at sword-point.” –Throne of Glass, Sarah J Maas
These first lines are classically intriguing because they beg questions. Why was Lynn killing to defend a pond, and at the tender age of nine? Why was Celaena enslaved and what had she done to be escorted everywhere in shackles at sword-point? They make the reader ask questions and, assuming they want to know the answers, forces them to read on. 

“I AM A COWARD. I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was. I have always been good at pretending.” –Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein

 “First the colors.
Then the humans.
That's usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.
You are going to die.”
-The Book Thief, Marcus Zusak

These first lines are pure shock and awe. In Code Name Verity, the narrator admits, right away, that she’s a coward and that she’s good at pretending. Does that mean she is indeed a coward, or is she pretending about that as well? And in The Book Thief, the narrator tells the reader that they are going to die, which is bold. But that’s only part of it. Referring to people as humans is important here as well. It begs the question: Is the narrator not human? These beginnings ensnare readers immediately by surprising them.

So, what can be learned from these instances? First lines should inform, intrigue and/or shock readers, so that the reader is interested enough to keep reading. The first line needs to be blunt but not simple. It needs to be detailed without being confusing. And it can by no means be boring.
I think I’ll take these lessons and apply them to my WIP. I’ll let you know how it works out!

Happy Winter, all!

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