My parents have hosted dinner parties for as long as I can remember. Dad cleaned, Mom cooked, and my sister and I mainly stayed out of the way. Usually the families we invited over had children around the age of Lynn and me, so we kids entertained ourselves after dinner by playing outside or invading the play room. The adults usually just visited, but sometimes they played a game they called Dictionary, which you might know better as Balderdash. In Dictionary, one person flips through a dictionary and finds a word whose definition escapes everyone. That person copies down the actual meaning on a slip of paper while everyone else writes down a definition that will fool everyone. The more people you fool, the more points you get and win the game. Sometimes the game devolved into writing down humorous definitions instead. I observed this game, and as I got older, I eventually got to play. I recall sometimes playing just with Mom, Dad, and Lynn.
Imagine my delight when I heard of a similar game but with first lines of novels. I’m a regular listener to the Book Riot podcast, which shares news about all things bookish in the world, including this First Lines game. The person who created this game focused mainly on genre fiction–romance, mystery, etc.–but I think almost anything could work.
- Show participants the novel’s cover.
- Give participants the title of the novel.
- Give participants the summary of the novel from the jacket flap or back of the book.
- Have participants write down the best first line that fits with the title and summary while you write down the actual first line.
- Collect all the slips of paper and shuffle them. Read them aloud.
- Have participants vote for their favorite line. The participant with the most votes wins that round.
I decided to try the First Lines game with my Creative Writing 2 students. For the book, I chose The One I Left Behind by Jennifer McMahon.
Summary from the back of the paperback:
The summer of 1985 changes Reggie’s life. An awkward thirteen-year-old, she finds herself mixed up with the school outcasts. That same summer, a serial killer called Neptune begins kidnapping women. He leaves their severed hands on the police department steps and, five days later, displays their bodies around town. Just when Reggie needs her mother, Vera, the most, Vera’s hand is found on the steps. But after five days, there’s no body and Neptune disappears.
Now, twenty-five years later, Reggie is a successful architect who has left her hometown and the horrific memories of that summer behind. But when she gets a call revealing that her mother has been found alive, Reggie must confront the ghosts of her past and find Neptune before he kills again.
First lines from my students:
- Today is Mother’s Day. [This line was ultimately chosen as the winner.]
- Reggie sat up quickly, hands shaking from the reoccurring nightmare of that day in 1985.
- Summer of ’85 was hands-down the worst summer of my life.
- It was the summer of 1985 that my mom’s hand appeared on the step.
- I’d never smoked pot before the summer of ’85.
- He had a hunger that only hands could satisfy.
- I have a weird face.
- I try to forget what happened so long ago.
- Nothing could ever be so horrifyingly unforgettable as the sight of her mother’s severed hand.
- It was a dark and stormy night, when suddenly, all hell broke loose.
- What’s worse than a bee sting? Seeing your mom’s severed hand. This is my story.
- Cereal [sic] killers, to your surprise, do not kill cereal; they kill people.
- Ever since my childhood passed, life was great.
- Where are my hands?
- Ring! Ring! Reggie’s phone began to ring.
- Just one call and the nightmares resurface as I remember the one I left behind.
- I had hoped to forget these things, along with my mother.
- I guess you could say things got a little out of hand that summer.
- I’m a cold, sassy tree.
The actual first line: It began with the hands. [No one chose this line as the actual first line, so I fooled all my students.]