In Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, literary agent Donald Maass offers advice on the importance of the first and last lines of a book. That first line is what draws the reader in, often while browsing in a bookstore. The last line helps shape a reader’s final impression of a book and perhaps leads them to seek out more work by the same author.
According to Maass, first lines should do one of three things to create the desire to read on. They should:
a) Pose a question
b) Present a puzzle
c) Create an element of intrigue
Last lines should have
b) A touch of poetry, or
c) A sense of dawning peace
Let’s see how three of my favorite books and one I wrote stack up against Maass’s advice
First line: Late one evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead, and pulled the trigger.
Does this line offer intrigue, a question, or a puzzle? You bet it does! We want to know who pulled that trigger and why they might have done such an unbelievable thing. That Backman tells us the shooter is a teenager, not a gang member or other criminal, makes the question of “why” especially compelling.
Last line: They do that in hockey towns
It’s a little harder to see the dawning peace of this sentence if you haven’t read the book. But the final sentence of Beartown is hard won after the chaos of the book, including the teenager pulling the shotgun trigger. It represents the way life has been restored to its normal course and can go on again.
Next, I offer Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, the first book in her wonderful six-volume series about Attolia.
First line: I didn’t know how long I had been in the king’s prison.
Intrigue, question, puzzle? Yup. Again all three. Who is this person and why are they in prison? Because we understand the way stories work, we unconsciously note that this imprisoned person is speaking in the first person and is probably the book’s central character. That means we’re likely to be asked to sympathize. Why should we sympathize with a criminal? Or does the phrase “king’s prison” subtly suggest that the speaker rejects the idea their imprisonment is just?
Last line: You’re welcome, my queen.
We read this and know something has been satisfactorily settled. The speaker and the queen both seem happy. In other words, we have a dawning sense of peace.
And here are the first and last lines of a book that needs no explanation, The Hunger Games.
First line: When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.
For me, this line was intriguing even when I first read it. Initially, I assumed a lover was missing from the bed, but, of course, we learn the missing person is Katniss’s sister, whose place she eventually volunteers to take rather than let Prim go into the arena. She sleeps with Prim, suggesting how close they are. Thus this first line subtly sets up an important plot element.
Last line: I take his hand, holding on tightly, preparing for the cameras, and dreading the moment when I will finally have to let go.
Because The Hunger Games is the first in a connected series, Suzanne Collins faces particular problems in writing a last line. She has to bring this book to a satisfying conclusion for its readers, but she also has to leave the story open for a second and third episode. She gives Katniss a bit of peace from the comfort of holding Peeta’s hand. In that way, she does as Maass says a writer should. But Collins also makes sure to include dread for what’s to come.
First line: In Lac’s Holding, we love the small gods.
It’s obviously hard for me to assess my own work, but in opening with this line, I hoped the idea of small gods would intrigue readers and make them want to find out what those might be. The first paragraph goes on to say that during Winter Festival, the small gods walk among us, which I hoped added to the intrigue. Who knows what these small gods might do?
Last line: They were sailing east toward the sunrise and one pale star, into a new year and things that had never before been.
Here I was aiming for a dawning sense of peace (no pun in “dawning” intended) and, perhaps, a touch of poetry. Change is in the air. The characters have been through a lot, but now they can start again.
When you’re editing your book, consider revising those first and last lines until they reflect some of what Maass is asking for.