Do you consider the first line to be an important part of a story? If so, why?
It can be. Memorable first lines get quoted. “Call me Ishmael.” “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Even if you’ve never read Moby Dick or Anna Karenina, the chances are, you’ve heard the first lines. They become part of our culture.
On the other hand, I’ve never read a book just because of its first line — or, on the flip side, decided not to read one because the first line wasn’t catchy enough.
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 don’t have any particular technique, although I find that if I think of using an entire paragraph (or perhaps even the first two or three) as the opening, rather than just a single sentence, I don’t feel as pressured to perform. I find the openings I’ve written that I like best tend to have tension, perhaps outright conflict, and they hint at the story that’s to come.
What consequences, if any, do you think there are in having a badly written first line?
I suppose if it’s egregiously bad, the writer could lose readers. But it would have to be truly awful, like starting a hard SF book with something physically impossible, such as “The explosion of the starship could be heard even on the third moon of the planet” (since, as we all know, sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum). That’s throw-the-book-back time.
Even with dull or trite openings, however, the eyes keep moving, and it’s rare for the first sentence to be read in an isolated fashion. Even something like “I was born” can be saved by an interesting sentence or paragraph to follow it up. (“Some have argued that robots are made, not born, but that is not how it felt to me.”) So an average to dull first line might not grab readers, but it’s probably not going to send them fleeing, either.
What’s your favourite first line that you’ve ever read? And can you recall a worst?
I don’t know if it’s my all-time favorite, but I love the first line of The Return of Nathan Brazil, by Jack Chalker. “It would have been far easier for Har Bateen to conquer the world if he had had a cold.” It immediately makes you say, “What?,” and read on to see how on earth that could make sense.
For worst? Well, certainly one of the dullest is the opening of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco — not the prologue (which starts with a Bible quote), but the actual story. “It was a beautiful morning at the end of November.” Okay, so what?
What is one of your own best first lines?
The boy who would be known as Phoenix Anderson fell for a very long time.
Opening line of an SF middle-grade novel that’s half complete.
We’re all sharing here! What’s one of your worst first lines?
The current first line of the novel I’m editing:
Daniel Stoneleigh sighed with relief as he stepped out into Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg’s main drag.
First of all, sighing is almost as much a cliché as smiling or rolling someone’s eyes — completely overdone. Second, although it gives a name and location, it doesn’t say anything about the story to come.
Do you have any suggestions for other authors on how to write a great first line? Have you heard any great advice yourself?
If you’re normally a planner, don’t start writing just because you have a good opening. Jot it down, but then do your normal groundwork; don’t expect the great first line to carry you through to the end.
Don’t be boring. Make sure the first line has something to interest the reader — conflict, character, humor, theme. You might not lose readers right away, but you’re not encouraging them to keep going, either.
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?
Besides boring, I don’t like first lines that strike me as being gratuitous — profanity just to be eye-catching, especially.
I am a desert rat (native Nevadan) transplanted to a humid climate. My ideal home has bookcases in every room. I’m a moderator at Forward Motion for Writers, an on-line writers community. My fiction has appeared both on-line and in print in various places, placed in the PARSEC short story contest, earned honorable mentions in the Writers of the Future contest, and been short-listed for the UPC Award.
Since I can’t settle down to one thing, I have several irons in the fire at the moment: I’m finishing up an SF thriller novella, editing a paranormal romance novel, starting to write the sequel to my NaNoWriMo middle-grade horror novel, and planning an epic fantasy series. That’s what on the top of my work pile currently, although there are other projects in progress that I’m planning to finish over the course of the year.
My Website (http://www.erinmhartshorn.com) has links to my short fiction available on-line as well as those I’ve put up for sale myself. Additionally, I blog two to three times a week.