Do you consider the first line to be an important part of a story? If so, why?
I do think first lines are important. A good first line sticks with you and you can recall the joy you got out of a whole story from that one line. A really good first line sets the whole tone of the story and gives an expectation not necessarily of what’s to come, but how it’s going to be handled.
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?
Almost without variation, I start a story from the first line. I’m not sure that’s actually a technique, but I think it helps that my first impression of the story – the first line that comes to me – will be identical to the reader’s. I don’t craft my first lines. I don’t alter them unless it’s because of a spelling mistake or a name change. I just write them down and if they suck, I delete them and do something else, because that story isn’t ready yet.
What consequences, if any, do you think there are in having a badly written first line?
Forgettability is the consequence of a weak first line. Your first, best chance to have a quotable, memorable line in a story is the very first one. I’m not saying it’s the total death of a piece of fiction if the first line isn’t anything special, but I think a good foundation is important to any piece of prose, and whilst one might argue that the foundation is the plot or the outline or whatever else, from a reader’s perspective, the foundation is the beginning. You’ve got to build on that first line, so you want it to be solid.
What’s your favourite first line that you’ve ever read? And can you recall a worst?
There are so many fabulous first lines, but I have to go back to Dylan Thomas for mine –
To begin at the beginning: It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.
As for a worst first line? All the ones I can’t recall. I’ve read hundreds of books. Some of them I can’t even remember the title of. Those books had bad first lines.
What is one of your own best first lines?
My favourite of my own first lines at the moment is from The Sartorialist:
I remember first setting eyes on Toby as clearly as though it were yesterday.
I feel it gives the reader a lot of information (that this is a memoir, that Toby is important, and that ‘setting eyes’ is the way the narrator thinks of first meetings, because he’s obsessed with appearances), encourages curiosity (who’s Toby?), and is short enough to remember.
We’re all sharing here! What’s one of your worst first lines?
I expect I have dozens of not-so-good first lines. I’ll see if I can dig one up for you… ah ha:
Reading back over my own published account of the event, it occurs to me that I have not been entirely honest in my recounting of the facts.
It’s not totally irredeemable, I suppose, but it lacks anything remarkable. It could be the first line of anything.
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?
I don’t think there’s any one thing a first line shouldn’t be. No matter what ‘don’t do this’ rule you put down, someone’s going to point to a great way of breaking it that will be awesome and work really well in that case.
Do you have any suggestions for other authors on how to write a great first line? Have you heard any great advice yourself?
I think the best advice I have for first lines is to base them on poetic principles. Use unexpected metaphors, create a natural question, make every word important, pay special attention to the rhythm of the sentence – and then go with whatever feels right. I don’t think there’s any substitute for understanding the ideas behind short, powerful lines (which poetry is entirely composed of), well enough that you can apply them instinctively.
Essentially, practise, practise, practise (but from a starting point of knowledge, rather than stumbling around in the dark).
Cecilia Ryan is a romance author with a weakness for flawed, squishy heroes who aren’t especially heroic at all, and good prose. She’s just released a contemporary romance called A Symphony of Echoes, and is waiting excitedly for people to get their Regency-loving knickers in a twist over The Sartorialist.
You can visit her shiny new website at www.ceciliaryan.com