Your first line is probably the most important in your work. It should surprise and intrigue your reader and somehow give a taste of what is to come. Ideally, it should be unusual or uncanny and most importantly, it should encourage your reader to read on…
‘”Damn,” said the Duchess.” is a first line attributed to Agatha Christie, though I am unable to identify which of her novels is thus launched. Regardless of its provenance, this line is arresting, or was in its day. “Damn” was a pretty raw word in 1920 or so, rarely uttered in front of ladies, not to mind say by one, and then one of high social standing. So, an opening line such as this was written to shock, to intrigue, to grab the readers’ attention and it is a good idea to find one with a similar punch in the modern age.
Thereafter, is often a good idea to follow your first line with a pacy set of three chapters. These are also the showpiece you’ll be sending off to agents and publishers, so make sure they’re written to hook.
Some writers write their last chapter first, so they can figure out their plot, and then leave writing those all-important first few pages until last. In fact, the very last piece of writing they might do is the first line. Therefore, don’t fret over your opening, get the rest of your work down and come back to it later if necessary.
And, take note that just as your first line should reach out and grab your reader – your final line should linger with your reader for sometime afterwards…
Can you guess which works gave us the following opening lines? Answers below
1) ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’
2) ‘I’m writing this sitting in the kitchen sink.’
3) ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’
4) ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’
5) ‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.’
6) ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.’
7) ‘Mother died today.’
8 ) ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded.’
9) ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’
10) ‘He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it – was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.’
1) Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen.
2) I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
3) A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
4) 1984, George Orwell
5) Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
6) Ulysses, James Joyce
7) The Stranger, Albert Camus
8 ) The Crow Road, Iain Banks
9) The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley
10) Orlando, Virginia Woolf
December 2nd, 2011 at 22:39
Sue! I LOVE YOUR ADVICE!! I’m so grateful that one day I bumped into this blog! You are inspiring great things in my writing and I appreciate your generosity! :0)
December 2nd, 2011 at 22:40
What a lovely (and encouraging) comment! Thank you!
December 3rd, 2011 at 01:17
You’ve ‘hooked me in’! Thank you for all your advice. It’s a great refresher and reminder for me as a writer!
December 3rd, 2011 at 02:37
Great advice that I try to follow in my writing, that all important first line – I continue to work on finding “the hook” –
December 3rd, 2011 at 04:30
This made me make the choice. The novel’s opening is being reverted. This way the opening sentence CAN be “The headquarters of the Time Police resembled something M. C. Escher would vomit onto building plans.” or something along those lines. It was the first thing I wrote when I sat down writing this novel. And I love this line. When I reordered the opening, it was moved down a few paragraphs. Yes, yes. I think it may go back to the beginning.
December 3rd, 2011 at 04:41
Thanks for sharing consistently good tips…and for the game show quiz! My partner (who sells books) got half of them right off the bat, but the rest were good teasers to make him think harder. Fun!
December 3rd, 2011 at 15:13
Great post Sue! It is refreshing to get great information on craft. It’s hard to come by these days. In my opinion the hook is the most important thing. It sets the pace and the feel for the rest of the story. In screenwriting you have to accomplish this by the end of the first page. If you don’t the reader is turned off and it usually signals to them that you haven’t mastered the craft. Years ago a screenwriter had at least the first 10 pages to knock a reader off his feet. Those days don’t exist anymore. I never write the ending first and then the beginning last. I always start from the opening scene and then follow the journey I put my characters on, especially in the first draft. It helps me keep my mind moving and creativity up. Great references on the quiz you inserted in the post.
December 3rd, 2011 at 17:32
Thanks for visiting, Sue, for following my blog, and for the excellent writerly advice in your posts. I’ve been writing and teaching poetry for over 3 decades, but I’m a relative newcomer to fiction. Just finished a first draft of a fantasy novel and I’m mindful of my first line. A good place to begin as I edit (and return to my synopsis as I revise). I look forward to reading more here.
December 4th, 2011 at 11:35
Great Advice Sue! Thanks for following my blog. It’s only new. Have a contract with Penguin, with book coming out next year. There’s an Irish connection too. I’ve won a four week exchange residency to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre during May of next year. Have never been to Ireland before. Can’t wait!
December 4th, 2011 at 12:57
Congratulations on the book deal, Jennifer! You’ll love the TGC – I’ve done two residencies there and can tell you its a magical world and full of inspiration. I may meet you there sometime.
December 4th, 2011 at 11:56
Most of the time there are no rules when it comes to creating a story, however it’s true. If your story hasn’t got a great starter–you wouldn’t want to continue. I know especially in my case when I pick up a book, if the first sentence doesn’t hook me in, I don’t really want a piece of it.
I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on this site for tips. I believe you can never absorb enough information.
December 4th, 2011 at 12:48
Love your posts.Thank you for subbing.Since it seems you have a full grasp on writing and what it takes to pick at the writing worlds scab until it bleeds awards i think you can help me with my worst trait,Grammar….Looking forward to your future blogs….P.S…..I spend most of my time writing fiction.Blogging is just filler,and good fun.I want to make people smile. P.S.S. I’m not eager to please or I would save my best lines for my posts,but I do want to make people leave my blogs with a smile.or tears;However they take humor…….Sincerely,…PeculiarPotato…..Elephantshoe…
December 4th, 2011 at 19:43
Thanks for this post. I’m glad you found my blog, so I found your. Kerem szepen (Hungarian for thank you, if I remember rightly. My first mother-in law was Hungarian…)
December 4th, 2011 at 20:57
Szivi es koszi, Gabi!
December 4th, 2011 at 20:40
I dislike ‘show don’t tell’ people take it too far and the story gets drawn out and boring. While we have to capture the imagination of the reader by suggesting what is going on we do sometimes have to tell them or we end up with a novel as long as War and Peace and that is extremely boring. I can always tell when a writer has done a creative writing course and took it all ‘so seriously’. It can kill creativity. I’ve written one novel and rewritten it. I’m considering a novella based on my original story because it appears people want novellas; a quick read. Amazon want them for the Kindle. I wrote a children’s story based on my novel for children with cancer and that seemed to work well; I was told the kids enjoyed it.
Thanks for following my blog; I hope you’re not disappointed…
December 4th, 2011 at 21:00
Thanks Mike! yes, that’s my point, writers should favour ‘show’ over ‘tell’ but not to the exclusion of ‘tell’ – as, particularly in terms of speed and economy, telling has its role in creative writing. The main thing, I feel, is that writers need to be aware of the two and then make an informed decision as to which suits best the passage in question.
And your blog’s great!
December 5th, 2011 at 01:24
I think line #8 is my favorite. Lovely place you have here. Thank you for visiting mine!
December 5th, 2011 at 10:11
Thank you so much for your advice! 🙂
December 5th, 2011 at 15:17
‘”Damn,” said the Duchess.” is a first line attributed to Agatha Christie, though I am unable to identify which of her novels is thus launched.
You’re probably thinking of her book Murder on the Links, which starts with the paragraph,
“I believe that a well-known anecdote exists to the effect that a young writer, determined to make the commencement of his story forcible and original enough to catch and rivet the attention of the most blase’ of editors, penned the following sentence: ‘Hell!” said the Duchess.”
December 5th, 2011 at 18:26
Aha, wondered about that. Thanks John.
December 6th, 2011 at 15:57
You’ve hooked me, too. And I am so proud of how many opening lines I knew!
December 6th, 2011 at 18:00
John P. Murphy beat me to it…
I’ve been too busy creating a revision ‘To Do’ list to read blogs. Today I took a long hard look at chapter one & made some major changes. Not least, the first line. I liked it well enough before but knew it wasn’t quite right
Having left the manuscript to marinade for a while, imagine my surprise when the real first line revealed itself lurking in the third paragraph.
Now I’m back to reading blogs, & here you are, on the money as usual!
Thank you for all your sensible advice.
December 18th, 2011 at 22:06
My favorite first line, and general opening to any book for that matter, is Proust’s in Remembrance of Things Past: “For a long time I used to go to bed early.”
I love how he then plunges into an extended discourse on the nature of sleep and memory, all the while you are wondering “where is this going?” Of course he probably breaks most modern conventional rules for teaching how to write, but that’s what makes genius so novel.