Making a great first impression

There is no denying the importance of making a good first impression. Look online…ask a friend…go to the bookstore! You can find a lot of solid advice about how to impress in a variety of environments. Regardless of the relationship – personal or professional—getting off on the right foot is critical to establishing credibility. And likeability.

I have made my share of good and bad first impressions. I have stumbled over words. I have said the right…and wrong thing. Once I fell flat on my face.

So on that note, I’d like to introduce myself!

Hi, My name is Sarah Aronson. I have just joined this very wonderful blog, and this is my first post. I am so very happy to be here.

Some of you may find me likeable. Others may wonder if I am just too grateful to be true.

I could start this way:

Hey there—I’m Sarah and this is my very first post. Shannon’s first post scored a lot of readers and comments. I am really nervous that mine will be the first to receive none.

Both these introductions are honest, but they project extremely different images. And appeal to different readers. If we were all hanging out, I would know what would work. I could make eye contact. Shake hands.

But we’re not.

You’re just reading my words. So I can’t know. I can’t react and respond.  Online, I can only hope that you’ll get the sense that I’m humble. And friendly. It has to be clear in my words that I am a bit of a mother hen. Also self deprecating.
You might think I don’t know how to use commas.

(My Vermont College advisors would tell you: No. She does not know how to use a comma!)

This is my topic for today. Knowing how to create a good first impression on the page…in a middle grade novel.  It is so important.  On Page One, we have to convince readers to keep reading.  To trust us.  To care.

How long should it take to hook the reader? How long will a skeptical reader read?

One page? Two? Ten? Fifty?  We don’t know.

What I can tell you: Over the past few years, I have organized many conferences, classes, and retreats. I have participated in three first pages panels for New England’s annual SCBWI conference. I have probably read at least 600 beginnings! I know that it is absolutely magical when a book makes such a good impression that I cannot put it down.  Often, that magic happens on LINE ONE.  I also know that it is really easy to miss the mark and alienate the reader with ONE WORD. Usually, the impression made by the end of the very first paragraph is accurate.

That is why I spend so much time on my openings, my first impression. Frankly, it borders on obsession! I love fussing over my beginnings. I probably write my first paragraph fifteen, twenty, thirty times before I am brave enough to move forward. For a good beginning, I don’t rule anything out. Some day, I will write a book called Chapter One. It will be a collection of all my false starts!

It’s just like my introduction here. I have to think about my voice, the particular words, and syntax. I have to think about white space, and where the reader might want a pause. I have to consider my intended master effect with what is actually on the page.

And then, I have to trust the reader. I have to also accept that some readers won’t like my beginnings. Not all books are for all readers. Our job is to make sure our intended readers know that this one is for them.

So…let’s dig in. What do we need to do to make a great first impression?

You cannot underestimate the power of a great first line.

Barbara Kingsolver said that the first line of a novel must offer up a promise to the reader. Keep reading, and something or someone is going to be changed. The story is going to have a point and a meaning. It’s worth your time. You will connect emotionally.

A great first line HOOKS the reader. Do not underestimate its power. The first line is a signal to me that I will like the book, that the book will suit my sensibility. It is the ultimate good impression.

Let’s put three first lines to the test:

What a lot of hairy-faced men there are around nowadays.

When Jamie saw him throw the baby, saw Van throw the little baby, saw Van throw his little sister Nin, when Jamie saw Van throw his baby sister Nin, then they moved.

Just let me say right off the bat, it was a bike accident.

Are you hooked?

I am. In each case, these lines made an impression on me. They drew me in. Or they made me laugh. A promise was made and accepted. As a reader, there is nothing more exciting that. In each case, I knew this was my kind of book. My kind of promise. I couldn’t wait to keep reading.

The first line, and by extension, the first paragraph and page and chapter, act like a firm handshake, a wink between people who realize right away they are going to be good friends, that sense that YES. I get you.

So now, let’s think like writers. How can we make that impression? How do we ensure that our readers know our books are for them? How can we hook the reader??

The first thing I do is become a reader. I read like a writer, a reader, a teacher, a skeptic. I read my opening seriously. I think about who my intended reader is.

We really should understand whom we are writing for! I spend a lot of time thinking about my “ultimate reader.” I read the books my ultimate reader would love. And hate.

Then I ask myself the following questions:

___Is this a book of character? Or is this a book of action? Is that reflected in the opening?

___When do we first learn something interesting about the main character?

Note: there must be something about the main character that is important/essential to you, the writer.

___What is your book about? Describe it in LESS THAN ten words. How soon will the reader know this?

___Can you describe it in ONE word?

If you are having trouble, and even if you are not, here are some other irritating questions that will help you figure out the big picture:

___What does the character want?
___Why does the character want it?
___Why is he doing this NOW? Why is he doing this HERE? In this setting?
___What is your character’s joy? Pain? How does your character use joy to deal with pain?
___Why does your book have to open where it does?

With these questions in mind, I evaluate. I remind myself that there is a sacred relationship between my book (and me) and my reader. I remind myself that no book is loved by every single reader in the universe, but that my readers. . .the people I am writing for. . . should know that this book is for them. And they should know it fast. Because that is what a good beginning does. It makes a great first impression.

Do you have a trick for making a good impression? A story about when you missed the mark? Do you have a favorite opening line? I’d love to hear it. Let’s chat!

Sarah Aronson
  1. Great post. I’m in the middle of trying to write a first chapter and I’ve been obsessing on the first two pages. Thanks.

  2. Sarah, fantastic blog. I loved your opening and, I, too, am opening obsessed. Write, revise, write, revise, and begin again. I revise to conquer the fear that someone will put my story down without giving it a chance. After all, isn’t that what we all want…to have the chance to wow the reader. To have the chance to make that good first impression. Here’s a funny story about making a very bad first impression….I was 6 and my mom dropped me off at what is now fondly called a playdate. My friend’s mom greeted us and I stared up at her and said, “Wow, you are the first lady I ever met with a mustache!” I happily skipped away with my friend, eaving my mom standing there with the very unhappy (and hairy) woman. Not a good first impression. But, I suppose it was an honest one. Great blog!

  3. Sarah! Great to see you here. (*waves at new friend Elissa, too!*) I’m shocked by how much you squeezed into this post…and such great (not irritating) questions to think about. Though I’ve long known that first lines, paragraphs, pages and chapters are critical, I’ve never thought of them as an introduction, a first impression, which, of course, you’re right. (I also can vouch that you don’t know commas! But you make up for it in content!)

  4. Great post! Harold Underdown just did a presentation on first lines at the Nevada SCBWI and like you do here, he talked about what we set up with those most important words. I love the idea of a promise to the reader. Thanks for making us think!

  5. Sarah aka mother hen,
    You’ve given me lots to think about, as always. I really like your comparison between the first line, paragraph, chapter and a firm handshake or a wink. That makes a lot of sense if we want to keep the reader reading. Thanks!

  6. Hi Augusta, Hi Amber! Great to meet you, too.

    I agree–that first line is a seed. It does grow. It needs tending, too.

    (I like thinking this way!)

    Thanks for stopping in!

  7. I think of the first line as a seed. It must hold the core of what will eventually grow into the story.

  8. Your examples of “beginnings” –all books I’ve loved– hold the rest of us to the highest standards! I’m saving this post to reread and recommend. Really terrific advice. Not to mention, I do feel like I just met you, in person, with handshake.

  9. Hi Karen, I LOVE that first line!!! Love the rhythm of it!

    I just reread this one, from Turtle in Paradise, by Jennifer Holm.

    “Everyone thinks children are sweet as Necco wafers, but I’ve lived long enough to know the truth: kids are rotten.”

    (I read that book in ONE sitting!!!)

  10. Nice post and welcome to the blog! I like your questions to really make the writer think about the promise they’re giving to the reader. My favorite first line of all time is from Nan Marino’s Neil Armstrong is My Uncle…

    “Muscle Man McGinty is a squirrelly runt, a lying snake, and a pitiful excuse for a ten-year-old.”

  11. Thanks, Elissa!

  12. Great post, Sarah. I have to admit that I spend lots of time working on my first sentence. It’s so important to have a great hook that doesn’t wait to grab your attention.

    Welcome to the blog!

  13. Hi Tanya and Andrea!!

    It’s great to have a reason to think about these kinds of questions. Of course, there are some readers who will keep reading, even if the opening doesn’t grab them. But I think that’s a risky gamble for a writer to take! Do I need to look at my beginning again? Always!!!

    Thanks for reading!! 🙂

  14. Thanks for your thoughts on this very important topic! I’m going to read your post again now, because it gave me so much to think about. Glad you’ve joined the blog.

  15. Wow, there is so much meat in here, and I’m not just saying that because I am your friend! (How was that for an honest opening sentence?) I thoroughly enjoyed this and it made me think–do I does this, do I ask myself all of these questions, do I need to rethink that beginning–again? Thank you, Sarah!