Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Calm Down About the First Line of Your Story

You only get one chance to make a first impression. This is true in nearly every situation, from work to parties to first dates. It is also true of stories.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about the first lines of stories—how important they are, how they need to hook the reader, how they should effectively introduce the story, establish a unique voice, be surprising, etcetera, etcetera. And all of that is true. But I’ve also met so very many new writers who’ve gotten a little too consternated trying to write the “perfect” first line. I find that, more and more often, the only advice regarding first lines that I want to give to people is this: calm down.

First lines are like titles: if done well, they can hook the reader’s interest from the get go. Sometimes they just pop immediately to mind, and other times the writer really has to dig and work to find a good one. Sometimes writers knock it out of the park; more often, they simply manage something adequate. But even if first lines and titles are only average, most readers and editors will continue to give you their attention for at least a little while longer.

So yes, first lines are important; but they’re not worth the headache that many writers devote to them. There are only a few basic rules that I would suggest that you follow when writing the first lines of your stories:

Make sure that they are free of errors. Almost no editor or reader will set down your story simply because the first line didn’t “grab” them. But if you have grammar or punctuation errors in the very first sentence of your story, that will make them wary.

Don’t let them run on. As I’ve mentioned before, long sentences are both more difficult to properly construct and more difficult for your readers to follow. Asking your readers to swallow a massive amount of information at the very, very beginning of your story is a bit of a tall order. Try to give them the new information and introductions a little bit at a time.

Make sure they are on topic. Sometimes, in their quests to create engaging first lines, writers wander a little too far from their story. They begin on a largely unrelated topic and then wander from there to the story. The problem is, if that first line is so very engaging, your readers will only feel cheated when they find out that it has nothing to do with the actual story. Not a good way to gain fans.

That’s it.

I’m not saying that you should ignore all the other “first lines” advice out there. If you can craft a pertinent first line that is funny, intriguing, or fascinating, that’s great! That’s desirable and impressive; good for you. But here’s the thing: what is funny, intriguing, or fascinating to one person won’t be that impressive to many others. I can’t tell you how often I’ve had other people show me “amazing” first lines that I just wasn’t that impressed with. I’ve been completely floored by amazing first lines that other people just shrugged at with a “meh.” Almost no first lines will be amazing to everyone or even most everyone, so don’t break your brain trying too hard to amaze and wow. As long as you follow the tips above and don’t write anything that will actively repulse readers, you’ll be fine.

Now, this may or may not be a helpful illustration, but I found it fun. I’ve spent quite a bit of time browsing through the first lines of books and short stories, especially ones from very successful books. I’d like to share a few here. I think that, like me, you’ll see that many first lines are impressive, while others are simply quietly competent. Some hit you with a plot hook, while others simply begin a slow process of easing you into a long story.

In making this list, I have avoided all of the “classic” first lines that these lists usually cover. I love the first line of Pride and Prejudice and am less-than-wowed by the famous first line of Moby Dick. But this list is more focused on the first lines of modern stories that have come out in the last few decades. How are today’s writers—your contemporaries—beginning their books?

     Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling)

     Robert Langdon awoke slowly. (The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown)

     When he woke in the woods in the dark and cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. (The Road by Cormac McCarthy)

     “We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. (A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin)

     The trial was irretrievably over; everything that could be said had been said, but he had never doubted that he would lose. (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson)

     When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)

     My suffering left me sad and gloomy. (Life of Pi by Yann Martel)

     I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. (The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini)

     CLARE: It's hard being left behind. (The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger)

     My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. (Twilight by Stephenie Meyer)

     Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death. (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green)

     The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened. (The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan)

     Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood. (The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan)

     When I think of my wife I always think of her head. (Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn)

     At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin. (The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd)

     It was night again. (The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss)

     There is one mirror in my house. (Divergent by Veronica Roth)

     I have never been what you’d call a crying man. (11/22/63 by Stephen King)

     Mariam was five years old the first time she heard the word harami. (A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini)

     Kalak rounded a rocky stone ridge and stumbled to a stop before the body of a dying thunderclast. (The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson)

     Wind howled through the night, carrying a scent that would change the world. (Eragon by Christopher Paolini)

     There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. (Holes by Louis Sachar)     

See what I mean? I’m sure some of those really grabbed you; others not so much. And I’ll bet the ones that impressed you aren’t all the same as the ones that impressed me. But all of those books were widely-read to an extreme degree. So don’t fret too much about your first lines; they won’t usually make or break your story.


  1. Hi, I'm writing my PhD at the moment, and I've always suffered from first lines -fear. Recently I've started to do some "free writing" every time before starting with the real text I'm working on. I give myself five minutes to write whatever pops into my mind, and I really mean whatever, nobody is going to read these "five minute texts" anyway. This method seems to be useful for me, I feel like it lowers the bar and makes easier to start writing the actual text.

  2. Sounds like a useful method. Thanks for the tip!