Absolutely. Of course, what follows needs to be as interesting and compelling enough to keep people reading. That first line can draw readers into the story, set the pace or the mood (sometimes both), define a character… That first impression always matters because not all readers are willing to go beyond it.
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?
Some first lines write themselves, quite literally. I think the problem is when you place an inordinate importance on it and try to force something brilliant. Sometimes you don’t come up with a good opening line until halfway through writing a piece, and sometimes do not realize this until you’re deep into revisions.
I wish I could tell you there was some magic formula but I never approach a new writing project the same way.
What consequences, if any, do you think there are in having a badly written first line?
The worst, of course, is that the reader will be turned off and reject your work. I personally need a really incompetent effort to go that far. I sometimes allow for a slow or seemingly ineffectual first line and let the writer try to win me over.
The other thing to consider is that a badly written first line might cause word of mouth that includes the caveat, “It was a good book but it starts out just so.”
What’s your favourite first line that you’ve ever read? And can you recall a worst?
The best first line, in my opinion, is from Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple”.
You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.
Thirty years later, those first eight words still send shivers down my spine, and after I get past the heebie-jeebies it manages to remind me of that epic journey with Celie. That first line carries all the beauty, the anger, the fear, disappointments, the tears, the laughs and small triumphs. On the first reading though, that line immediately put me in the same state of mind as the heroine.
None of the bad lines were memorable enough.
What is one of your own best first lines?
I howled at the Moon last night.
From “One Night with B.B.”
We’re all sharing here! What’s one of your worst first lines?
It was an ordinary afternoon in late November.
From “Justified” — it smacks of “It was a dark and stormy night.” I admit I did that on purpose because it amused me, but then (after I published it) I realized, “Oh my god, people who don’t know me and my twisted sense of humor are going to read that I think I’m just mentally deficient…”
There was another really bad first line that I wrote for NaNoWriMo a couple of years ago, but frankly it was so bad I destroyed the whole thing and all physical copies. I had to. I decided that if I was to suddenly die, I’d rather people found porn on my hard drive instead of that manuscript. I swear I don’t remember the first line. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
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?
Brevity is the soul of wit, complex sentences that try to summarize the whole story and all its nuances are annoying and obnoxious. Avoid that at all costs. Polarizing statements or heavy handed attempts to manipulate your readers’ emotions are also traps to avoid.
It’s like starting a conversation with a bitch slap!
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 worry about it. Seriously. Write. Revise. Rewrite. That “perfect” first line might be buried in the story. Revisions might suggest it. It may not even exist at all. Focus on writing a good story and the pieces will come together naturally. Don’t force it.
The advice that I have heard and read is to start your story in the middle of the action and this will propel the story, but no one has ever given specific advice as to the structure or content of the first line.
The truth is that every story is different and you cannot predict whether the line will have the desired effect. The most often quoted best first line is “Call me Ishmael.” If you do not understand the context of it at this point, would you choose such a line to begin your story? Probably not. What determines the brilliance of that first line is how it is received.
Do you have any final words?
I suppose that there is something poetic about really compelling first lines. Finding the right words isn’t always easy but it is always worth the effort.
Kali Amanda Browne was born in New York City, came of age in Puerto Rico and has lived her entire adult life in Brooklyn, NY. Writer, food enthusiast, devoted daughter, marketing specialist, technology analyst, big mouth with a daemon tongue, geek with pagan tendencies. Titles in her arsenal include two volumes of food essays and recipes, a crime novel, a couple of short stories and an anthology of journals. The next challenge is a steampunk series with a very sassy heroine and her fantastic journeys in a new, strange world; a detective story; and a cookbook of Latin American delicacies.
You can follow all her writing projects – from fiction, short stories, cookbooks, online articles, to blogs and social media – here: http://kaliamanda.weebly.com