Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Ever spend a day’s worth of writing time on your first line? If so, you’re not alone; many authors believe their story will live or die on the strength of their first line. They’re not completely wrong – your opening does matter – but it’s not the all-or-nothing affair many people imagine.
Not only that, but there’s serious risk involved in focusing too much on your first line. Yes, a great opener can win you readers and serve as a useful sales tool, but a bad first line can chase readers away.
The merits of a vanilla first line
Plenty of books start off vanilla and are still highly successful. Remember how Life of Pi begins? ‘My suffering left me sad and gloomy.’ This is not prototypical of a successful opening. It’s depressing, it’s not action-oriented, and most of it’s redundant. Nevertheless, the story’s fantastic, rising to fame despite a pretty lame first line. On the flip side, a great first line may not buy you anything more than immortal fame from people who will never read your book. (Raise your hand if you’ve heard the line ‘Call me Ishmael.’ Now keep your hand up if you read the unabridged version of Moby Dick.)
The opening line is no guarantee, and sometimes it isn’t even important. Here’s what is important: don’t sacrifice the integrity of the story for a beginning that doesn’t feel natural or truly tie in. Readers smell false hooks and clichés a mile off, and nobody likes slogging through purple prose just to find out what a book is about. Let’s take a look at the successful qualities of first lines that aren’t dazzlingly famous but which do invite readers into darn good books.Make sure your first line is inviting before you worry about it being iconic.Click To Tweet
Keep your first line real
If we put famous first lines under a microscope, we find that their commonality is not ‘crazy awesome syntactical superpowers’ but that they are true to their own narrative voice. Listen to Scout’s voice in To Kill a Mockingbird:
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury.
This is a great example of a first line that doesn’t try too hard. The voice is simple, a little low-brow, and the endearing little sister/daughter tone is consistent with the rest of the narrative, but it’s not without power. We get a little taste of characterization – the teenage boy who loves football and isn’t self-conscious – and we’re a intrigued by the name ‘Jem’. It’s barely less interesting to say, ‘When he was nearly thirteen, my brother John got his arm badly broken at the elbow’, but somehow it’s just less-interesting enough that we lose a degree of intrigue.
Contrast this with Neil Gaiman’s in-your-face opening characterization from American Gods:
Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.
We get the same character-pull that we get from Harper Lee, but against the raw, foggy backdrop of a novel with totally different undertones.
Huck Finn’s spunky drawl jumps off the page in an unusually successful self-referent: ‘You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.’ Of course, it’s Mark Twain, so we have to assume he can get away with stuff that the rest of us can’t, but it’s more than that. There’s a self-awareness to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn’s adventures, and because that’s firmly established in how Mark Twain voices the stories, it works to start off this way.
In each of these examples, the tone is true to the character of the book. So it is that Kafka’s trippy surrealism, John Green’s paradoxical mix of humor and tragedy, and Dostoevsky’s rich philosophy all satisfy. It’s often not about the contents of the opening lines but about the voice.
Make your first line personal
All writing is of its time, and you need to consider current trends to write an effective first line. For instance, contemporary literature has shifted away from the general and into the personal. One of history’s most renowned openings – ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ – might not be as wildly successful if it were written now. That isn’t to say that there’s no room for philosophy in contemporary literature; it just needs to be couched differently. For a great example, see how Khaled Hosseini arranges the first paragraph of The Kite Runner:
I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.
Imagine if he started with ‘It’s wrong what they say about the past.’ This might still work… or the reader might feel preached to (and ask ‘Sez who?’ in response). Instead, he bookends the universal with the intimate and suddenly the message (‘you can’t bury the past’) is grounded in a compelling personal experience. It’s part of the story, not something some author I never met is telling me I must believe to be true.
M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans doesn’t pontificate about the existence of miracles; instead, it tucks a miracle into an idyllic setting and tender opening characterization:
On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff’s edge, tending the small, newly made driftwood cross. A single fat cloud snailed across the late-April sky, which stretched above the island in a mirror of the ocean below. Isabel sprinkled more water and patted down the soil around the rosemary bush she had just planted.
The captivating first sentence of Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan takes the broad, noisy, overwhelming context of war and filters it down to the footfalls of a father as heard by a little girl. It’s the universal made personal:
War entered my childhood world not with the blasts of rockets and bombs but with my father’s footsteps as he walked through the hallway, passing my bedroom toward his.
These vibrant, intimate openers appeal to modern readers in a way that aphorisms and philosophy might not. Classical literature still grips people because they go into it expecting a classical style, but a contemporary work that sounds too classical risks sounding pretentious. Try diving right into the humanity of the story and let the ideas behind the humanity emerge through action and dialogue, not dictation.If you want a first line to resonate, make it about a person.Click To Tweet
Sidebar: there will always be exceptions to this. People love to quote Robert Goolrick’s recent zinger from Heading Out to Wonderful: ‘The thing is, all memory is fiction.’ If you’re aiming for a quotable one-liner, though, you’re taking a risk. If other people don’t find the line as eloquent as you hoped, you’re sunk. In fact, Goolrick’s starting paragraph does start to get a little bossy (‘You have to remember that,’ he writes; most readers don’t want to be told what they have to do), but I think he rescues himself by shifting to something personal:
You remember a little thing clear as a bell, the weather, say, or the splash of light on the river’s ripples as the sun was going down into the black pines. Things not even connected to anything in particular, while other things, big things even, come completely disconnected and no longer have any shape or sound. The little things seem more real than the big things.
Note, also, that most of these successful first lines also prompt the reader to ask questions. “What miracle?” you can ask of Stedman, or “What war?” of Ratner. These questions energize the reader to read on and find out more, but they also keep some of that energy for themselves.If your first line plants a question in the reader’s mind, it’s usually done its job.Click To Tweet
If you take a risk, take it all the way
If you decide the thing you want to say at the outset is sure to grab people, and it authentically fits the tone and character of your story, go for it, but make sure you follow through. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina leads with a provocative claim (‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’) and then delivers a story that, for its time, is raw and unique – digging under cultural codes into the raw unhappiness (and pursuit of happiness) of several overlapping families.
In a very different way, the crass, melodramatic beginning of Fight Club (‘Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.’) works because Tyler proves to be crass and melodramatic. This first line is risky because it promises an idiosyncratic, fearless protagonist and it has to deliver. Imagine that opening paragraph followed by a drab, predictable main character who just had that one odd moment (presumably contrived to hook readers).
The bottom line
One last thing to try, and this one’s much more pragmatic. Write the first few paragraphs, go away for a day, then come back and delete the first paragraph without reading it. Sever your emotional attachments to that first paragraph and see how the story reads starting in the middle.
Often, you’ll have been so caught up in phrasing that one line that it stops being about delivering information. If it turns out you can live without it, do.
At the end of the day, a bad first line can break you and a great one doesn’t guarantee success. Generally, an average, inviting line (hopefully one that invites a question) will serve you just as well with none of the risk. Don’t feel that your first line has to be a triumph – focus on making it functional and if it also knocks the reader’s socks off, that’s a bonus.
What are some of your favorite first lines – awesome ones or terrible ones? Let me know in the comments. Bonus points to whoever makes the rest of us laugh with a really bad line. Or, for more great advice on this topic, check out The Four Story Openings That Put People Off (And How To Avoid Them) and 3 Questions You Need To Answer Before You Can Write With A Strong, Distinctive Voice.