Do you consider the first line to be an important part of a story? If so, why?
It depends. I know that sounds a wishy-washy answer but it’s true. Any given story has the elements that it needs to work and in some a killer first line, one that grabs you by the throat, is important. In others, not so much. I guess the truest answer is: Yes, as long as the first line focus the readers attention where it needs to be for the story to start to work.
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?
Starting is a pain, but that is more because you have to start in the right place. No story will work if you start in the wrong place for that particular story. So, the quicker you can spot that your first line is wrong the less time you will waste. It’s like torque – you get more useful work if you get the opening line right first time. Of course, you can plough ahead regardless and get to the end but… probably better not.
What consequences, if any, do you think there are in having a badly written first line?
Depends on the length of the piece. For a novel you can probably get away with a line that doesn’t grab. But for shorter work, not so much. There’s always more room for mistakes in a novel length work; get some momentum and carry the crowd with you. If the first line is like the first chuff of a steam train, well readers know that there will be a second chuff and the train will start to roll along real good any time soon.
What’s your favourite first line that you’ve ever read? And can you recall a worst
Wow. Just exactly how good do you think my memory is, Scarlett? Gimmie a moment and I’ll see what I can come up with – several thousand books have to be thought about here.
Okay, actually it didn’t take any time at all but I was just rejecting it over and over. So, I give up:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Now, the funny thing about this is that everyone can quote It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. And probably assume that that is it. It’s pretty snappy, sticks in the mind and that’s why I was resisting it. First thing to come to mind. Of course, the actual true sentence – thus first line – is just enormous and I doubt that more than a handful of people could quote it entire without reference; I certainly couldn’t. But… It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. That’s class.
Another comes to mind from a movie, Serenity. It’s the opening scene after the credits.
What was that?
It’s a great line. It’s perfect. Utterly perfect for that story. And that’s what matters.
What is one of your own best first lines?
No sense asking for elaboration – it’s the second line that makes it and you didn’t ask for that; also it’s an unpublished story and I have no intention of publishing it because it’s mainstream and I don’t do that.
We’re all sharing here! What’s one of your worst first lines?
Ouch. Okay, I’m all for glasnost and perestroika. It runs thus:
On the west bank of the Golinda the day was full of fire and men and horses.
Now that is just weak almost almost to the point of meaninglessness but the choice was drop back a day, change POV, do more prequel stuff or just get on with the story. I mean, Prison of Power is definitely one of those chuff-chuff-chuff books, but when it builds up a head of steam…. not so bad, I have at last been told, by one reader.
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?
Confusing. Or a lie. Or irrelevant.
Do you have any suggestions for other authors on how to write a great first line? Have you heard any great advice yourself?
Not really, to be fair it isn’t one of my strengths. I think I said all I have to say about this above, and more or less covered it. Start in the right place. Focus attention on the most important thing.
Do you have any final words?
“Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something!”
Sometimes it’s just as well to have a good last line planned. For emergencies. :0)
Chris Northern is European, a traveller by inclination, and an electrical engineer by education. He has plied many trades over the years, determined to gain experience as he believed writers should. When asked what he does for a living, he tends to reply, “Whatever’s to hand,” and when asked why he writes novels, will usually say, “It’s like blinking; it’s just something that happens.” He likes to tinker with car engines and will occasionally get them running for a while. He is often to be found eyeing the horizon; shortly thereafter, he is often found to be gone.
Up to no good, as usual. No; I’m busy – working on book for of The Price of Freedom sequence and have just interrupted that for a two day brainstorm of – hopefully – genius, which will bear fruit over the next month of so. Science Fiction was always my first love but I haven’t written any for ages. Well, I’m just about to.