Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Writers' Wednesday: First Lines

The February issue of Writer's Digest was (as always) chock-full of good articles on craft, success stories, interviews, etc. But the one I found the most helpful was the one on first lines. We agonize over them, revise them, abandon them, pretend they don't matter as much as they do. Bu ultimately, the first line of anything we write is the hook that will (or won't) pull the reader to the next sentence, and the next page, and...well, you get the idea.

Many, many people have talked about what a first line should do. This article, "Better Starts for Better Stories", touched on a lot of the standbys, many of which are worth mentioning again:

*Resist the urge to start too early (one of the best pieces of advice).
*Small hooks catch more fish than big ones (or, hook 'em and then pull like crazy in the opposite direction).
*Start with a mystery.
*Keep talk to a minimum (interesting, since many people will tell you to begin with dialogue. but be careful - you don't want to lose your readers either, and they won't have a clue who's talking from the get-go).
*Introduce your voice.
*Establish a mood.
*Go with a classic (yes, like "Once upon a time" or a close variation)

Some "classics" they quoted, again worth quoting here:

"Call me Ishmael." (Moby Dick)
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." (Pride and Prejudice)
"I am an invisible man." (Invisble Man)
"Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful." (Gone With the Wind)
"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins." (Lolita)
"It was a pleasure to burn." (Fahrenheit 451)
"It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. (The Bell Jar)

And if you want to read more, here's a Top 100 website that's kind of fun to peruse...

I've both agonized over first lines and, fortunately, had a couple that sprang to me fully formed and never changed. Of the 5 books I've written, these 2 have my favorite first lines - and interestingly, they really never changed from the moment I wrote them.

"Get out!" shouted Dakota James as she threw Sean McCabe's jeans - her favorite pair, she noted bitterly, faded in all the right places - across the room. (from One Night in Memphis) - I think this one works because it immediately sets up the conflict that drives most of the plot: a breakup, fiery and laced with reluctance.

Grant Walker knew it was going to be a long day when he woke up and couldn't remember the name of the woman lying next to him. (from One Night in Napa) - I think this one works because Grant's playboy personality (and how it both gets him in trouble and ultimately changes) is a major focus of the plot.

So...what are your favorite first lines, either ones you've written or ones you've read - and why do you think they work so well?


Liz said...

I still remember sitting in the movie theater for Star Wars oh so many years ago and the word Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away appeared on the screen... Got chills.

JL Walters said...

There are so many great first lines. Some of my favorites are from Dickens. It was the worst of times. It was the best of times.

Diane Craver said...

A favorite first line I wrote is from A Christmas Gift. It was 1957 when I saw something that I wasn't meant to see.

Allie, I love your first lines. I enjoyed reading both of these books!

Allie Boniface said...

Ooh, Diane, I like that one too - lots of mystery! said...

If I do not like the first line of a book, I discontiue reading. Seriously.
One of my faves is Toni Morrison's (Can't remember which one), but the first sentence is "They shot the white woman first."

Good post!