The First Line

One blustery, Upstate New York fall day, in the last, waning years of the twentieth century, a Creative Writing Workshop professor presented her class with an impromptu exercise.  I happened to be a student in that class, and I remember the exercise well.

The professor offered the following fictional scenario . . .

A husband comes home late from work.  He has been arriving home late for weeks now.  In the beginning, his wife was understanding, patient, but lately she’s been protesting, asking him why on earth he never comes home on time anymore.  But on this night, his wife is not there.  The house is empty, silent.  Only the cat greets him.

From this brief synopsis, we were tasked to craft the first line of the would-be story.  Only the first line.  My professor’s point that day was simple–the opening line of a story is critical.  It can grab a reader by the hand and never let go, propelling the story forward with a rocket-fueled thrust.  Or it can be a ho-hum affair, fail to intrigue, and threaten to dull a reader’s interest from the outset.

firstline

 

Throughout literary history, there have been many memorable and captivating opening lines.

onceuponatime

 

I have always liked the first sentence in It, by Stephen King.  It is an epic, gargantuan novel, and the first words set the tone, letting readers know they are in store for something huge . . .

“The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years–if it ever did end–began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”

It

 

The first line of Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, is beautiful and haunting, elegant in its simplicity:  “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

rebecca

 

And how can anything top the famous first sentence from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol?  — “Marley was dead: to begin with.”  I have to say, this is my all-time favorite opening line.

dickenscarol

 

*****************

A story can begin anywhere.  You can begin at the beginning–the first chapter in David Copperfield is titled, “I Am Born.”  You can intentionally start a story with a slow, uneventful opening, lulling your readers into a stupor before shocking them later on.  (This is a daring tactic, as you risk losing your readers altogether.  One story that accomplishes this well, however, is Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”)  Or, more common, and generally most effective, you can begin in medias res, “in the middle of things”–drawing your audience in with a frenetic or emotional or action-packed scene.

There is no question that beginnings can be daunting.  You have your idea, perhaps very well developed, but now, as you sit at the computer, as the cursor blinks back at you, there is nothing but a blank screen to look at.  You are starting from scratch.

confusion

 

You want the scene to be perfect, a springboard for the rest of the story.  As is so often the case in creative pursuits, there is no one right or wrong approach.  Your options are as broad and tempting as an all-you-can-eat dessert buffet.  But, among the raspberry pie bars, chocolate muffins, brown butter cakes, and cherry tarts, you can choose only one.

When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, I knew immediately how I wanted to open the story–with Mitchell Brant looking through his bedroom window in the middle of the night and seeing the “ghost girl” standing in the street, beckoning for him to come to her.  It was a scene I had dreamed of myself years earlier, and it was the impetus for the entire novel.

The opening lines read:

“Peering out his bedroom window, his eyes flattened into squinting slits, Mitchell Brant saw her.

‘No,’ he said. ‘It can’t be her.  It can’t be.’

“But it was.  She had come again.”

It is certainly my hope that this opening creates a mood, a sense of foreboding and dread.  Who is this girl?  And why does Mitchell respond to her in this way?  If it works, you will want to continue reading in order to find out.  If it doesn’t . . . I will have lost you before the story even has a chance to begin.

There are places in any long work where the story necessarily slows down.  Few readers will cast a book aside in disgust while leafing through a less-than-thrilling scene in chapter twenty-seven.  By that time, the story has earned their trust, they are invested in its characters, its outcome.  Not every paragraph can be a masterpiece.  There are, by design, edge-of-your-seat high points and calm interludes in any novel.

But the opening sequence has to work.  It has to stand up and demand attention.  It has to enthrall and captivate and state, boldly, “Keep reading!  Keep reading!”

Or, to put it another way (and yes, I’m hungry as I write this), it has to be a raspberry pie bar you can really sink your teeth into.

piebars

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

82 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. mandyevebarnett
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 17:41:09

    I love any type of prompt so I will be using this opening sentence at some point as a writing exercise. Opening lines are critical – I love the ‘It’ line as well.
    Thanks for sharing

    Reply

  2. coyotero2112
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 18:03:27

    Good prompt for a writing class, and good advice to writers who love to start with people thinking or a long paragraph of exposition, the two least dramatic elements of writing. The drama classes I took helped me think like this, since thought and exposition don’t work without that yawner of a voice-over strategy. My all-time fave is the opening to “Pafko at the Wall” by Don DeLillo….all action and description, and it just jerks the reader into the story.
    Later…

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jun 07, 2013 @ 12:12:43

      That’s definitely a good point about thought and exposition. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but generally they don’t work well for openings.

      Reply

      • coyotero2112
        Jun 07, 2013 @ 16:43:16

        In that drama class the prof gave us this –
        Dialogue
        Action
        Description – as the three most dramatic elements of storytelling, and the three most useful to playwrights, then –
        Thought
        Exposition – as the two most undramatic elements. It’s like thinking about prose writing like a screenwriter or playwright thinks. “It really, really, really works,” to quote an old laundry soap commercial.
        Later…

  3. John W. Howell
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 18:05:05

    I like a book to speak to me when I start. I wish I had the professor a long time ago, Would have saved a lot of angst. great post. Here is the first line of my current book. “Gerry and I finish our beers and make a move to cross the crowded bar toward the front door.”

    Reply

  4. readinpleasure
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 18:46:56

    I enjoyed reading this post 🙂

    Reply

  5. Cowboys and Crossbones
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 19:15:46

    Great post! First sentences make all of the difference in hooking a reader. I love the opening line of Stephen King’s IT as well. Cheers!

    Reply

  6. The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 19:59:46

    Great post. Love it. One of my favorites is Dicken’s, A Tale of Two Cities. The opening and closing, love them. 🙂

    Reply

  7. reocochran
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 20:13:19

    I always love to read great literature to get those ideas flowing! I have always loved certain books, but not always remembering their first lines. I think “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “Don Quixote, Man of La Mancha,” and “Pride and Prejudice” are some of my favorite books. (Now I want to know their first sentences!) Also, “The Once and Future King” by T.H. White. But I will always remember “Call me Ishmael.” (sp?) from Moby Dick! Oh, John Steinbeck’s “The Pearl” is a good read, too.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jun 07, 2013 @ 12:18:33

      Always great to hear from you, Robin! And I love the “Moby Dick” opening too–sometimes, it seems, the very simple, straightforward opening lines are the most memorable.

      Reply

  8. willowdot21
    Jun 06, 2013 @ 22:11:45

    You are so right , I love beginning a new book , I love being hooked in! All I can say is ….. I did not have the right change, very nearly but not quite”

    Reply

  9. Christy Birmingham
    Jun 07, 2013 @ 01:32:45

    I like the first lines to reel me in and give me a tidbit of what will come in the next several chapters. Leave me wanting more, too! Ah, it’s a complex equation 🙂

    Reply

  10. Tracey
    Jun 07, 2013 @ 01:53:48

    I had never really thought about the power of the first line until I read this. Thanks!

    Reply

  11. 2embracethelight
    Jun 07, 2013 @ 03:34:36

    I quite agree. I have read books that the first line pulled me in and I had to keep reading. Stephen King is one of those writers. I think I have read almost all of his stories. You write well also. I enjoyed the things I have read. Simple yet captivating.
    Yisraela

    Reply

  12. Katie Sullivan
    Jun 07, 2013 @ 04:03:37

    Sometimes I pay attention to a first line, sometimes I don’t. It depends on why I’m reading a book – if I’m already in love with a series or author, then it’ll take at least 3 chapters before I start questioning whether or not I’m actually interested (not the most discerning reader at times!). Others can reel me in or kill any interest within the first page. I’m going to have to go through all my favorite books now and read the first line, just for curiosity’s sake. Great post!

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jun 07, 2013 @ 12:25:50

      Thanks, Katie! I am similar to you–if it’s an author I know I like, the first line doesn’t matter as much to me–though I still love to read a well-crafted first line! But I almost never put a book down until I give it a fair chance–usually at least a chapter or two, unless I really just can’t even get through the first few paragraphs at all–which is rare.:)

      Reply

  13. skywanderer
    Jun 07, 2013 @ 05:29:56

    A lovely post and very true indeed – the first line of the book is probably the most important one. Love the way you pull the reader into the thrill of practising creative writing. Makes me want to try …

    Reply

  14. peacelovegreatcountrymusic
    Jun 07, 2013 @ 05:47:25

    I’m going to add all three of these to my summer reading list. Thanks for the reminder.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jun 07, 2013 @ 12:29:07

      That will make for a great reading list.:) Perhaps you can add “The Eye-Dancers” to your list, as well? Sorry. I couldn’t resist.:( If you have never read “It,” you will be in for a treat!

      Reply

  15. kaytisweetlandrasmussen83
    Jun 07, 2013 @ 07:15:19

    First lines are important of course, but I give a book 25 pages or so to decide if I want to read it, unless it is a subject I’m thrilled with anyway.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jun 07, 2013 @ 12:30:58

      I agree with you there! I rarely cast a book aside until I have read at least a chapter or two. Sometimes a book starts slowly and then really picks up–and I do try to give the story a fair chance . . .

      Reply

  16. Lyn
    Jun 07, 2013 @ 07:23:12

    My YA MS starts with a prologue…still not sure about it.

    Reply

  17. merrildsmith
    Jun 07, 2013 @ 10:06:14

    Great post. (The opening line of Rebecca is one of my favorites, too.)

    Reply

  18. Trackback: Writing the first line – I need to get it right…
  19. Fashion Mayann
    Jun 07, 2013 @ 13:49:02

    The 1st line of “The Eye-Dancers” is so sharp and full of promises … like all your posts who never disappoint !

    Reply

  20. likeitiz
    Jun 07, 2013 @ 14:00:43

    The first sentence is one that will hook you in, for sure. Or the first paragraph, for that matter. Good read!

    Reply

  21. becky6259
    Jun 07, 2013 @ 15:37:11

    Those raspberry pie bars DO look good! I learned a lot from your post, and will be more aware of opening words from now on when I write — thanks for the great post!

    Reply

  22. Jilanne Hoffmann
    Jun 07, 2013 @ 18:23:47

    Yes! First lines are critical. You’ve presented some lovely ones here. One of my favorites is: “Two things to get straight from the beginning: I hate doctors and have never joined a support group in my life.” This is the first sentence of Adam Haslett’s short story, “Notes to My Biographer,” a story with such a strong voice that it grabs you by the collar and continues: “At seventy-three, I’m not about to change. The mental health establishment can go screw itself on a barren hilltop in the rain before I touch their snake oil or listen to the visionless chatter of men half my age. I have shot Germans in the fields of Normandy, filed twenty-six patents, married three women, and survived them all, and am currently the subject of an investigation by the IRS, which has about as much chance of collecting from me as Shylock did of getting his pound of flesh. Bureaucracies have trouble thinking clearly. I, on the other hand, am perfectly lucid.”

    When I read this now, I want to go re-read the story even though I’ve read it several times over the past few years. It is such a lovely, entertaining, and poignant father-son story, it leaves me in awe.

    Reply

  23. europasicewolf
    Jun 07, 2013 @ 20:13:40

    Just finished battling through two tough assignments…interestingly in light of this post was one persistent question that seemed to be popping up everywhere I turned lol regarded attention grabbing first lines and beginnings and such like 🙂 Not always as easy as it first sounds either! Now I am free for a couple of days to get on with my own writing…and I seem to be finding every reason under the sun not to hunker down int front of a blank screen and get to work!! Just wait till Monday when I don’t have much time…I’ll be bursting with ideas,…or then again lol…maybe not! 😉 Attention grabbing headings/1st lines etc…concentrate Wolfie…concentrate!

    Reply

  24. sakuraandme
    Jun 10, 2013 @ 04:47:01

    Hello Mike!
    I love a book that captures you from the very first sentence. If I’m not hooked by the first chapter…I close the book. 🙂 BTW: You so have made me feel hungry..they look amazing and fattening. LMAO …Have a great week …Paula xxx

    Reply

  25. Jane Dougherty
    Jun 10, 2013 @ 07:50:56

    Great advice, Mike, that can’t be repeated often enough. I love your examples of opening lines. Your isn’t too bad either!
    Reblogged and tweeted.

    Reply

  26. Jane Dougherty
    Jun 10, 2013 @ 07:51:44

    Reblogged this on Jane Dougherty Writes and commented:
    Advice you either take, or prepare to sink into oblivion

    Reply

  27. Minister Gertrude Ferguson - Founder & CEO- Enough Tribulations
    Jun 10, 2013 @ 19:57:42

    I am glad that you mentioned that the opening line of any writings has to be captivating. If it’s not captivating, by grabbing the reader’s attention, then the reader might just not want to go any further. These are wonderful reminders for writers. Thanks for sharing this article.

    Reply

  28. StetotheJ
    Jun 10, 2013 @ 20:00:34

    Tough things openers…I finally settled on: Exsanguination, now that’s a topic that never comes up in the middle of a forest?

    Reply

  29. conjurors
    Jun 10, 2013 @ 21:41:40

    Love that you picked Rebecca – I also found that opening striking.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jun 11, 2013 @ 17:34:33

      It is, isn’t it? Amazing that something so simple can be so moving. And yet, that is often the case. It reminds me of “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote. The story opens: “Imagine a morning in late November . . .” So simple! And yet it draws me right in.

      Reply

  30. quirkybooks
    Jun 10, 2013 @ 22:18:44

    I think this is a very thoughtful post. I do agree that there is an intriguing atmosphere created because of your opening sentence. Is it a self-published book or published by a publishing house? Just to offer you some constructive feedback, I think the end of the first part of the sentence doesn’t sound quite right – “Peering out his bedroom window, his eyes flattened into squinting slits, Mitchell Brant saw her.” In regard to the show, don’t tell rule, it may have been better expressed without the letter part:

    Peering out his bedroom window, his eyes flattened into squinting slits.

    “No,” he said. “It can’t be her. It can’t be.”

    But it was. She had come again.

    I hope I have not caused you any offence? I am not sure if anyone else would agree with my opinion? The cover looks amazing and I am sure the story is an interesting read.

    Reply

  31. laurie27wsmith
    Jun 10, 2013 @ 23:57:40

    It’s said that when you are dying your life flashes before your eyes. For Simon Fynch it came in one long, slow reel.
    Opening line from my 3rd book River of Death.
    Cheers
    Laurie.

    Reply

  32. wannabephotographer87
    Jun 12, 2013 @ 17:56:03

    Oh my gosh Rebecca is one of my favorite books and Hitchcock movies 😀 That first line really drew me in, great post 😀

    Reply

  33. rolark
    Jun 12, 2013 @ 17:56:12

    Great post! I especially appreciated all the examples. However, did I miss something or did you not include your line from the class’s prompt?? I kept waiting for it to pop up 🙂 just curious is all.

    Reply

  34. Sue Dreamwalker
    Jun 12, 2013 @ 18:35:32

    Some of my favourite books in there on your one liners, Rebecca for one, and your own opening line can not fail to grasp the attention of the reader.
    Love the look of that Raspberry pie 🙂
    Thank you also for your email also Mike, much appreciated 🙂 as is your continued following of Dreamwalkwer’s …

    Have a great rest of the day.. 🙂
    Sue

    Reply

  35. FreeRangeCow
    Jun 13, 2013 @ 14:42:35

    I had a good friend who would try to cheer me up by sending me a first line and asking me to write for 5 minutes…then he’d take the story over and write for 5…etc. It was sooooo much fun! Thanks for the great post and thanks for the trip down memory lane (yours and mine). Now I have to think about my favorite first line!!!

    Reply

  36. Melinda de los Santos
    Jul 01, 2013 @ 20:18:05

    Two thumbs up, but wait- I just saw those raspberry pie bars. no doubt they came out that way on the first try. Am I right? I Pinterested it, for future reference 🙂

    Reply

  37. Joanna Fay
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 13:48:46

    Love that list of opening lines, and A Christmas Carol does stand out! 🙂

    Reply

  38. Trackback: Writing the first line | Pen and I

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