The first line of a novel reveals the skill of the writer and signals the type of story ahead. Epics often begin with the presentation of something big. Writers who want their readers involved in the narrative often start with action. It’s not unusual for an author who wants to challenge the reader to present a puzzle.
2. 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?
A story always begins at an arbitrary place and time. I often find my first line after I’ve already written hundreds of words. I just throw those out or find another place else to put them. Sometimes a first line comes like a dream. It’s just there.
3. What consequences, if any, do you think there are in having a badly written first line?
A poorly written first line won’t doom a big concept novel, but it’s like baseball; it’s a first strike against the book. A foul first sentence in a book read for fun ends up in my unread pile unless it’s a wonderfully bad line. “The Rocky Horror Show,” for example, is resplendent with terrible lines and it continues to be popular decades after its release.
4. What’s your favourite first line that you’ve ever read? And can you recall a worst?
This is my favorite:
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice.
John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
This is one of the worst:
Swenson waits for his students to complete their private rituals, adjusting zippers and caps, arranging pens and notebooks so painstakingly chosen to express their tender young selves, the fidgety ballets that signal their weekly submission and reaffirm the social compact to be stuck in this room for an hour without real food or TV.
Francine Prose, Blue Angel
This first line is terrible because it uses so many words to say so little. Prose’s first line actually begins with the last sentence of her first paragraph:
Is it my imagination, or have we been seeing an awful lot of stories about humans having sex with animals?
(the middle aged professor asks his students)
Francine Prose, Blue Angel
Prose should have cut that first line, eliminated the rest of her first paragraph, and started the novel with this question. The point she makes with her beginning could have been worked into the rest of the story.
5. What is one of your own best first lines?
The image shimmered, then burned.
Jackson Burnett, The Past Never Ends
6. We’re all sharing here! What’s one of your worst first lines?
As emotion washed over her, Wanda gingerly looked at her left boob on her chest right above the bottom rib bone on her left side and wondered where it came from.
This first sentence was never published, but it is similar to some, I’m sure, that have been discarded into the ether. The only thing that saves this line from being complete dog food is the question of what “it” is: Does Wanda wonder where her boob came from or is “it” something else?
7. 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?
The Wanda sentence from my last answer demonstrates everything wrong a writer can do to start a story. The line includes a cliche, an unnecessary and inappropriate adverb, and unimportant details. For some readers, it would be offensive as well.
8. 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 wait for a great first line to begin writing a story. You’ll find it or it will find you.
Jackson Burnett is the author of The Past Never Ends, a newly published legal mystery from Deadly Niche Press. A sometimes teacher of creative writing, Burnett enjoys Italian opera, the roller derby, and reading trashy novels. He also writes short literary fiction and essays. His prose has been compared to that of Raymond Chandler, Sarah Vowell, and Garrison Keillor among others.
Visit with Burnett at the Facebook page for The Past Never Ends: https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Past-Never-Ends-by-Jackson-Burnett/302973386467969