A great first line is what turns a potential reader into a reader, so it’s very important indeed. What is more, a first line should ideally provide an introduction to the protagonist and the conflict and be intriguing enough to hook the reader. That’s a lot of functions for a couple of words to fulfil.
Do you find first lines easy to come up with, or challenging? Do you have a technique, or a ritual, that you go by to make it easy?
It depends. Sometimes I come up with a good first line right away or at least very early in the
writing process. Sometimes, the first line is dull and uninspired throughout the first draft and even beyond. At least for me, a good first line tends to arrive in a flash of inspiration. As for techniques and rituals that make first lines easier to come up with, well, I haven’t found one that works yet. But I do know that rushing things usually doesn’t help. A good first line will come in its own time.
What consequences, if any, do you think there are in having a badly written first line?
The absolute worst that can happen is that a bad first line keeps the reader from ever reading the second. And that’s a very negative consequence indeed.
What’s your favourite first line that you’ve ever read? And can you recall a worst?
Of the classics, Charles Dickens has some great first lines. Who could resist
Marley was dead to begin with.
from A Christmas Carol or
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
from A Tale of Two Cities? Another old but not quite yet classic first line I really like is
He was born with the gift of laughter and the knowledge that the world was mad.
from Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini.
Of more recent books, a first line that really stuck in my mind is
I’d died six months ago.
from Roadkill by Rob Thurman. How can you not want to read on after that? The book that follows is excellent, too, by the way.
YA novels tend to have great first lines as well, probably because the target audience is easily bored and will not accept a less than stunning beginning. For example, The Bad Beginnings, first
in A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, starts off with,
If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.
The combination of the narrator addressing the reader directly and immediately issuing dire warnings of the book that is to follow is a great attention grabber. There’s no better way of getting kids to read something than telling them they shouldn’t read it (teacher speaking here), which is probably why first lines with warnings addressed directly to the reader are so common in YA fiction. Rick Riordan uses a similar approach in the Percy Jackson series and the Kane Chronicles and it’s very effective.
As for bad first lines, there are very few bad first lines per se. Even the infamous
It was a dark and stormy night…
from Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton is not really as bad as it’s made out to be (and the book is actually quite good for an early Victorian adventure novel), it’s just clichéd. And indeed, clichéd or just plain dull first lines are a lot more common than truly bad ones. Clichéd or dull first lines also tend to be unmemorable, so you just tend to forget them, unless they are really hilariously bad.
What is one of your own best first lines?
I’m very fond of
SILENCER TO FACE HANGMAN the headline screamed. Blood red letters, two inch high, running through a rotary press at a rate of five hundred pages per minute.
Which is the first line of my novelette Countdown to Death. It’s grabbing, it creates atmosphere and immediately makes it clear what the story will be about.
We’re all sharing here! What’s one of your worst first lines?
On a July morning in the year of the Lord 1812, Captain Jonathan Farnsworth, officer of the British crown and spy for Lord Wellington, was riding towards the village of Los Horcados.
Which is the first line of my novelette El Carnicero. It does the job of setting the scene and introducing the protagonist, but it’s really quite dull. Luckily, it gets better within two sentences, when Captain Farnsworth reaches the village and finds all the inhabitants slaughtered.
What are some things a first line *shouldn’t* be? What are some things that you’ve read in first lines that really rubs you the wrong way?
Well, first lines definitely shouldn’t be boring or clichéd. They shouldn’t be wildly different in tone and style from the rest of the text, unless there is a very good reason for it. First lines shouldn’t raise false expectations, e.g. there is a detailed description of a blade slicing into a neck, blood spurting, a person crying out and then it turns out that the protagonist has only cut himself while
Do you have any suggestions for other authors on how to write a great first line? Have you heard any great advice yourself?shaving. First lines shouldn’t sum up the plot of the previous book in the series, cause it’s boring for those who have read them and confusing for those who haven’t. Nor should they spoil the plot. For example, there is a P.D. James mystery (Shroud for a Nightingale) which starts with “On the morning of the first murder…” This opening immediately rubbed me the wrong way, because even though I knew that I was reading a mystery and that there would be at least one murder at some point, I didn’t need some smug omniscient narrator to point it out to me. An additional problem with the novel was that the opening chapter featured two very likable lesbian nurses, who promptly vanished from the plot once the body was found never to be seen again, so this was also a case of the opening promising something that the book did not fulfil. Coincidentally, this was the first and only P.D. James novel I ever read.
I tend to prefer the in medias res approach, that is starting in the middle of action or dialogue. What is more, that action and/or dialogue should raise some questions, but not so many that the
reader is overwhelmed and decides that he doesn’t give a damn. Besides, it should be intriguing enough that the reader is hooked immediately and wants to read on. Finally, a first line should not be too long, because a first line that goes on and on risks losing the reader’s attention.
Of course, not everybody agrees. In my creative writing class at university, there was a writer who deliberately eschewed what she called “sensational openings” (she’d also chide the rest of us for writing sensational openings) and instead preferred to open her stories with unnamed characters musing about quotidian things. Her work was not to my taste at all, but she did win a local writing award at one point, so others obviously disagreed.
Nonetheless, the slow meandering approach of starting with several paragraphs of atmosphere and description that was common in the Victorian era rarely works in today’s faster paced world. I sometimes do an exercise with my students where we read and discuss the opening pages of several different novels. Most of them are fairly recent, but I also use the “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” opening of A Tale of Two Cities. My students inevitably hate that one, because it’s boring to them. Depressingly, they almost never get the historical references either, even though they’ve supposedly studied the French revolution in history class, but that’s a rant for another day.
Do you have any final words?
Thanks for having me. I really enjoyed this interview.
Cora Buhlert was born and bred in North Germany, where she still lives today – after time spent in London, Singapore, Rotterdam and Mississippi. Cora holds an MA degree in English from the University of Bremen and is currently working towards her PhD. Cora has been writing, since she was a teenager, and has published stories, articles and poetry in various international magazines. When she is not writing, she works as a translator and teacher.