Monday, January 11, 2021

Thinking About First Lines


People can often quote famous opening sentences from novels. They ring in the ears, with rhythm, intrigue and portent. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. “ “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.”

You may well think – so what? These are like proverbs or pithy quotes. We remember them because they strike a chord. But your first sentence, if it’s a real winner (or a hook, or startling in some way), will entice your reader to keep going. And if your second sentence is just as good, and your third pulls the reader right into your story … well, who’s going to argue with that? Off to the checkout they go.

What does a first paragraph, made up of all those stunning sentences, actually achieve? Not just capturing your reader’s interest. Your first paragraph also does these things:

  • ·        establishes point of view
  • ·        creates the tone of the novel or the voice
  • ·        brings the main character on stage (not always, but usually)
  • ·        presents either the beginning of the story problem, or something intriguing that leads to it
  • ·        establishes setting, era, genre
  • ·        hooks the reader with story questions

Phew. Hardly surprising that writers rewrite their first page/first paragraph/first line so many times!

Let’s take something familiar as an example. The Three Little Pigs is a good example – whose point of view are we hearing? What kind of voice is it? What does the narrator tell you in just a few words? (My day improved immensely as soon as I saw those three plump little pigs being kicked out of their house by their mean old mother.)

You could start with the youngest pig (My favorite TV show had only just started when the old witch pulled me off the couch, yanked the pizza out of my hand and shoved me out the door!) or the mother (Those assertiveness classes were the best thing ever – finally I got the gumption to throw those lazy kids out). Every story has possibilities for how to start, and each possibility changes the story into something new.

If you have already written the story, you know everything that is about to happen. You already have your point of view character, you may even have their voice working well, but it can take a whole novel to get this right. Now you go back to Page 1 and start again.

There are a few things not to do. I see writers start with dialogue that has no identification of speakers and goes on for several lines, and they think they are being mysterious. Or they start with lengthy character description, so you'll know up front who this person is. If you start with setting description, you’d better have a good reason, and you’d better do it well!

The art of a stunning first line is a challenge to every writer, no matter what you write. David Sedaris starts one of his essays with:

"Well, that little experiment is over," my mother said.

Stuart MacBride starts Blind Eye with:

“Waiting was the worst bit: hunkered back against the wall, eyes squinting in the setting sun, waiting for the nod.”

What do great first lines have? A sense of place and character, even if not spelled out. A sense of tone, a smidgin of description. But very often they have a story question - a real one, not one that is trying to trick the reader. Joe Abercrombie starts Before They Are Hanged with:

“Damn mist. It gets in your eyes so you can't see no more than a few strides ahead.”

(OK, so it's a fragment and a sentence.) It's setting and tone and character all together - what kind of character says 'no more' and 'strides' rather than 'any further' and 'feet' or 'metres'?

I always feel like that first paragraph is a promise. It's no wonder people stand in bookshops and read first paragraphs and first pages. The first line draws them in, and the next lines keep them reading. As a writer, that’s your challenge. How can you make your first line, and then your next, and your next, something that will totally draw your reader into the story?

The truth is, great first lines are really hard. You might have to rewrite yours 20 or 50 times. But the bonus of getting it right is that the second one does become a little easier, and then so does the third. It’s as if you’ve managed to set up the essence and heart of both character and plot, and now you can start adding the bones and then the flesh.

Learn from the best, and perhaps even model your own on them. What do they contain? How does the writer achieve what they do? Yes, there are plenty that are mediocre. Yours doesn’t need to be. It shouldn’t be. Pull books off your shelf and compare, take notes, analyse.

What's the best first line you've read recently?

You can read more of my articles on various aspect of writing at The list is here or go to @sherrylclark.