Monday, March 7, 2011

That First Line

First lines are important. They surmise everything about your writing style and hint at what’s to come in the book. At least, they should.

I’m unsure about my first line. It doesn’t do that and it should. It’s boring, sterile, not as sharp and witty as I want it to be. I’ve already changed it more times than I can count and I’ll probably change it a dozen more times until it’s just right. Along with the first chapter, which needs a rewrite itself!

How do you know when you’ve got it? You’ll know. It’s like being slammed with a mental two-by-for. You sit, stunned at your own genius (and perhaps not undeservedly), because your joy at this line diminishes any concerns you have about its appropriateness. When it’s good, it’s good.

Let’s look at some opening lines. 

“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.”
     ---THE DARK TOWER: THE GUNSLINGER by Stephen King

Whether or not Stephen King is a good writer is irrelevant. It’s a damn good opening. In that one sentence, you learn everything you need to to ready yourself for the books. The man in black is fleeing. The gunslinger is pursuing, something that resonates through the rest of the series.
"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
    ---"1984" by George Orwell
The clocks are striking thirteen. The perfect description of the skewed work that follows.

"All this happened, more or less."
   ---SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE by Kurt Vonnegut

If you've read the book you'll understand how much this sums it up, prepares you for what follows, whether or not it happened. 

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents."
   ---The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft

What can be so horrible that it's better to not understand it? Read on and you'll find out it's the Great Cthulhu, thank you very much. All hail Great Cthulhu!

This is only a small sampling, but it shows how important that first line is. This is the start to your story. It doesn't have to be memorable, but it should tell everything that's going to happen even though it can't come right out and say it.


  1. Great first lines! I very rarely change my first line, and it's very rarely that good. So this is something to think about for sure! :p

  2. I love Vonnegut. What a great writer.

  3. Great to see some :)

    Great post. I never thought about how important the first line is. I'll have to look back at some of my work.

  4. Kurt Vonnegut . . an all time favorite of mine. Truly a master of the written word!

  5. Those are some great openings, for sure! They make it clear that a good opening line is essential!

  6. Kurt Vonnegut: Further proof that good things come from Indiana. ;)

    I wrote a first line this week that brought me all sorts of happiness, but it was for an academic essay, so I kind of feel like the happiness was wasted. :/

  7. I have rewritten my first line and first chapter so many times myself that I know how you feel. Best wishes.

  8. Openings are essential and terrifying to write (at least for me). How to craft those first few sentences into the perfect hook is daunting. Good luck with yours!

  9. You are so right- the first line is everything. It needs to be powerful and draw the reader in.

  10. Darn... The opening of my prologue (and prologue vs no prologue is an entirely different argument!) is pretty good, I think, but the opening of my first chapter is... well, quite ordinary.

    I suppose I could change it though... :-)

    Thanks for making me think about this!

  11. First lines are so intimidating! Good luck with yours and your first chapter!

  12. First lines set everything up. I can't remember how many times I've rewritten mine!

  13. My favorite first line is 'The early summer morning was the color of cat vomit.' I love Scott Westerfeld a lot.


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