Friday, January 18, 2019

A Book's First Line Is Not Its MOST Important Line

Here's my heretical opinion:

A book's first line is not its most important line.

Ditto for the last line.

Instead, as both writer and reader, I place most weight on  - ta-dah! - the last line of the first chapter. For me, this is where the book's central dramatic question can be posed most crisply and distilled most succinctly. It clarifies for the reader what the book, most fundamentally, is about.

I wrote an article in praise of this crucial, but often overlooked, line in an article for the SCBWI Bulletin a couple of years ago. (It's definitely my pet obsession.) There I argued,"If a book's opening sentence entices the reader to finish the first chapter, the last line of that chapter convinces the reader to finish the entire book."

So in the first chapter of the launch title in my Nora Notebooks series, The Trouble with Ants, budding-scientist and ant-lover Nora decides to try to break the Guinness World Record for youngest person ever to publish an article in a peer-reviewed science journal.
Nora's sure she's a shoe-in to smash the record: after all, isn't she already the leading ten-year-old expert on myrmecology, the scientific study of ants? She glances over at her ants scurrying about in their ant farm, and the chapter ends with this line: "They had no idea how important they were soon going to be to the future of science."

Likewise, in the final book in the series, The Trouble with Friends, I placed similar weight on the first chapter's closing line.
As the book opens, Nora's teacher gives his class a challenge to do something completely new over the course of the next six weeks, whether trying a new sport or musical instrument, eating a new food, learning a few words in a new language, or making a new friend, "preferably someone as different from you as possible." When Nora's nemesis, Emma, who is opposite from her in just about every way, approaches her with an invitation for a sleepover (the last thing in the world Nora would ever want to do),  I end the chapter this way: "A terrible suspicion began to form in Nora's brain: Emma's new project was her."

Whenever I work as a mentor with emerging middle-grade writers, in manuscript after manuscript I get to the end of the first chapter with no idea at all where the story is heading. It's the role of the first chapter's last line to serve as a signpost, pointing the way forward.

Now, I have to confess I read many brilliant, best-selling, award-winning middle-grade books that don't end their first chapter with that satisfying little CLICK! in the final sentence. But when I'm floundering in my own work-in-progress, nothing helps as much as tinkering with the first chapter's last line. It's where I answer the "What is this book about?" for me.

4 comments:

  1. Good idea. In fact I think we should make the last sentence of every chapter an important line.

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  2. I agree that we don't want chapters just to peter out into nothingness! Sometimes, though, I see authors trying to hard to have an OMG hook at the end of every chapter. But yes, we do want each chapter to end with a reason for the reader to turn to the next one!

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  3. This is SO TRUE. Even as an adult, that last line of a chapter can press me forward to the NEXT chapter.

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