Do you consider the first line to be an important part of a story? If so, why?
I’m going to go against the norm, here, and say: yes, they are important, but not as important as people think.
First lines have a critical job to do, but once they’d accomplished their purpose, they should be allowed to clock out and have a beer while the writer gets to work on the other parts of the book. It’s the synergy of all of the parts that make a compelling story. Working slavishly on the first twenty words will not save a bad idea, or poor research, or a boggy middle, or poor POV. Granted, we all know we’re supposed to work as hard on the rest of the novel as we did on the beginning, but how often does it happen that way?
This is perhaps more relevant than ever now that e-publishing has allowed us to get away from the need to woo agents and editors. A generation of writers were told that “the first page (or first chapter or first three chapters) has to sell your book” and wrote accordingly. This made for some lopsided writing: great beginnings, uncertain middles, fuzzy endings. Digital publishing lets authors focus on the entire story.
Having said all that…a great first line is a beautiful thing.
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?
I used to really labor over first lines, trying to out-do myself in cleverness or the beauty of my language or crafting arcane metonymies.
If something great occurs to me, you bet I’ll use it! But lately I’ve been following the model of the best crime fiction and thriller writers: use the first line to get your reader into the story as quickly and as smoothly as possible. Spare, functional first lines have their own beauty.
Think of it like a can opener: whether it’s made out of 24-karat gold or tin, it’s still gotta open cans.
What consequences, if any, do you think there are in having a badly written first line?
It depends on what you mean by “badly”.
There’re the obvious goof-ups of bad grammar or a misspelling or the misuse of a concept. You might think these are no-brainers, but I’ve seen them in action and I can tell you it colors my opinion for the rest of the book. First lines are like job applicants: if they show up badly dressed, with mustard stains on their shirt, talking nonsense, they’re not going to get the position. Many readers will abandon a whole book if these simple things go uncorrected.
Then there’s the perfectly written first line that assumes too much. I’ve suffered from this where I’m so familiar with my own story–after re-writing it 10 times–that I can’t quite remember what the reader doesn’t know yet. In this case, the reader feels dropped into the deep end of the pool. They might stay with the story a little longer than with poor writing–perhaps I’m some kind of genius and they need to stick with it to “get it”–but eventually they’ll figure out I’m not the next coming of Thomas Pynchon and will slip my book under a table leg to prop it up.
There are flat first lines, too-cute first lines, vulgar first lines…they all have the same consequence: to turn readers off to the book and quite possibly to the author.
What’s your favourite first line that you’ve ever read? And can you recall a worst?
The Quiet American starts off unspectacularly, but if you know Graham Green’s writing and his penchant for playing with the reader, it’s a line that, in retrospect, works wonderfully:
After dinner I sat and waited for Pyle in my room over the rue Catinat; he had said, ‘I’ll be with
you at latest by ten,’ and when midnight struck I couldn’t stay quiet any longer and went down into the street.
I don’t want to spoil the story, but if you finish the book, go back and read that first line. Like so much of that wonderful novel, you realize Greene almost wrote the book backwards; far from being mundane, this opening line is telling you something about Fowler (the narrator) and the story from the very start.
I should also say that pretty much any short story by Hemingway starts off with an amazing first sentence. Pick up the Finca Vigia edition of his Compete Short Stories and just flip to the first page of each story; you’ll be in awe.
What is one of your own best first lines?
From my short story “A Day at the Beach”:
Ted Christy was wearing dark sunglasses, black flip-flops, and a banana-yellow Speedo when he realized that he’d just lost everything he’d stolen in the last twenty years.
The short story is a comical heist kind of thing, where I hope the reader gets a kick out of the visual (the protagonist being dressed in beach wear of questionable taste), the history (a burglar with 20 years of experience) and the set-up (apparently our crook has been out-crooked…how?).
We’re all sharing here! What’s one of your worst first lines?
Hoo boy. I love the concept of my speculative fiction short story “Feeding the Beast”, but could never get the first line to come off right:
The mill lay recumbent on the banks of the river, its humped back casting a shadow up to the surrounding hills when the sun had reached its end, the outbuildings and workshops trailing off as they followed the serpentine twists of the river for a mile or more.
I was shooting for “elegant Shirley Jackson” but ended up with “pretentious wind-bag” instead. I’m still working on 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?
I love science fiction and fantasy, but I have a pet peeve when authors are so in love with their own world-building that they throw a tidal wave of funny place names, magical races, ancient rituals, holy artifacts, and cultural history at the reader in the opening gambit. Certainly you want your reader to get into the milieu, but give ‘em a chance to breathe, too!
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 it’s important to tailor the impact of the first line to the format you’re writing in. In short stories, obviously, space is at a premium, so your first line has to be punchy and meaningful. I mentioned Hemingway’s uncanny ability to nail amazing first lines in his short stories , but if you look at his novels–where he had more time to spin out a tale–there are few memorable opening lines. With more time and space, you have the luxury of the slow build.
If you have the gift, humor can be a great way to kick things off. John Cheever has a great opener in his short story, “The National Pastime” that will make you grin, even though the overall premise is serious:
To be an American and unable to play baseball is comparable to being a Polynesian and unable to swim.
If you’re starting to despair, just get into the action. As I suggested above, slipping directly into the narrative might be all you really need. Master crime fiction writer Elmore Leonard does it time and again:
The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.
Stick wasn’t going if they had to pick up anything.
Ocala Police picked up Dale Crowe Jr. for weaving, two o’clock in the morning, crossing the center line and having a busted taillight.
– Riding the Rap
Do you have any final words?
First lines are important and the best ones stick with us forever, but your book can’t be “all hat and no cattle”, as the saying goes. Your story is paramount; if you’ve got that covered, the first line will grow organically out of your great writing.
Matthew Iden writes thrillers, crime fiction, and contemporary literary fiction with a psychological twist, but he’s also tried his hand at fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Former money-earning activities include time as a rifle-and-backpack-toting volunteer for the USDA Forest Service in Sitka, Alaska; IT Manager for the world-spanning Semester-at-Sea program; and… postman.
He’s recently released four collections of crime fiction short stories in e-book format (collected in the omnibus one bad twelve) and a fantasy short story debut, Sword of Kings; his medium- boiled crime fiction series featuring retired Washington DC homicide detective Marty Singer debuts soon in A Reason To Live.