Do you consider the first line to be an important part of a story? If so, why?
I can’t imagine there’s a writer out there who doesn’t think the first line is important. It’s the first impression and it’s the first step towards setting the tone, the world, the characters, the emotions. It’s also the first chance to prove to the reader that the book is well written.
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 all varies from piece to piece. Some lines come right away. Some even inspire the entire story. Others are teeth gnashing, headache inducing, nightmares. I don’t know why. So, to answer the second part — no, I don’t have any technique or ritual. If I did, my teeth and head would sure be a lot happier.
What consequences, if any, do you think there are in having a badly written first line?
A mediocre or bad first line won’t ruin the work, but a good to great first line will excite readers and suck them in instantly. So the only real consequence to a bad start is that you now have to work harder to get them to keep reading.
What’s your favourite first line that you’ve ever read? And can you recall a worst?
Here’s a great one that does all you can ask for from a first line:
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
— The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
I don’t recall any that outright stunk. The ones that were mediocre just don’t stick in the memory.
What is one of your own best first lines?
Malja wanted to kill the boy. Again.
— The Way of the Sword and Gun (Book 2 of The Malja Chronicles) This one plays well on its own, but if you’ve read Book 1, then you know who Malja is and who the boy is which actually gives this line an extra layer or two.
We’re all sharing here! What’s one of your worst first lines?
When he woke, Jeo no longer sat in prison.
— from the short story “Jeo Defined” An early piece I wrote. I don’t like the cliche of waking up, and worse here, the character wakes up in a blank room.
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?
As I mentioned above, don’t have the character wake up. Occasionally this can’t be avoided, but try your best to find a better way to start. It’s just way too overdone, and as shown by the Kafka line, it’s been done really well already. Also, name your character from the start. With few exceptions, there is no reason to start a story with pronouns. It’s artsy, but not in a good way.
Do you have any suggestions for other authors on how to write a great first line? Have you heard any great advice yourself?
Don’t get too worked up over it. Just get the story moving. As you come to understand the characters, the opening scene, and the piece as a whole, you’ll be able to find a good way to start. And if you’re first line isn’t stellar, that’s okay. It’s more important to get the story moving than to stun your reader with a good line.
Do you have any final words?
First lines are like the opening of a song. Some songs have very memorable openings — “Rock and Roll” by Led Zeppelin (massive, fast drum opening), “Pride and Joy” by Stevie Ray Vaughan (distinct guitar part), “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns and Roses (Long, melodic instrumental). Other songs have openings that serve the song well but are not particularly special — “Rollin’ in the Deep” by Adele is just a steady drum beat, nothing special or unique. Lots of songs start with a steady beat. But, of course, Adele’s song is very special and shows that once she starts singing. So, if you have a great first line, wonderful. But don’t sweat it if your first line is only serviceable. Just make the rest of the work sing.
Stuart Jaffe is the author of The Malja Chronicles, a post-apocalyptic fantasy series, as well as the short story collection, 10 Bits of My Brain. Numerous other short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies. He is the co-host of The Eclectic Review — a podcast about science, art, and well, everything. For those who keep count, the latest animal listing is as follows: five cats, one albino corn snake, one Brazilian black tarantula, three aquatic turtles, one tortoise, assorted fish, two lop-eared rabbits, eleven chickens, and a horse. Thankfully, the chickens and the horse do not live inside the house.
Visit Stuart at the creatively named website address: www.stuartjaffe.com