Writing That Crucial First Line

fireworksPeople can quote opening sentences from novels. “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?

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. Ann Whitford Paul approaches the first sentence of a picture book in the same way – what can or should that sentence achieve? She uses The Three Little Pigs as an example – whose point of view is this particular story being told from?  (My day got better as soon as I saw those three plump little pigs being thrown out of their house by mean old Mum.) You, on the other hand, could start with pathos (Mother Pig crying over her boys leaving) or anger (the little pigs thinking Mother is being horrible to them)? She gives a wide range of possibilities for how to start this very familiar tale, and each one changes the story into something new.

Every story is the same. 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. 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 altogether – 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?

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

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