First lines are arguably the most important words in writing. Unless a reader has some other reason for reading, the first line leads her or him into the text filled with a sense of anticipation about what will come next. The first line is the cusp on which the reader teeters, judging what will follow by the calibre of that initial sentence.
Here’s a list of brilliant first lines. From Jane Austen’s “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”, through Daphne Du Maurier’s “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again“, to J.K Rowling’s “Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much”, each is so enticing it’s impossible to stop reading.
I struggle long and hard over my first lines in any kind of serious writing, whether it’s a story, the first line of a novel or chapter, an article or an important letter. Often I write some terrible gibberish to get the first line out of the way so that I can write the rest of the piece. When the main writing is complete, I return to the beginning to re-craft the first sentence to whatever level I can achieve.
As the first line of the novella I’m currently writing I have: “Save for the gentle hum of the pods, the growing room was silent“. Hopefully this conveys interesting information while remaining tantalising, but it’s hardly a classic. Only time will tell whether the sentence will stay as it is. One thing I like is that ‘the’ isn’t the first word. In my freelance writing, editors have told me to never begin a piece of writing with the word “the”. It’s a weak word, they say. Start with a verb, a noun, a pronoun even, but never “the”. I try to follow this advice, and although sometimes it’s difficult to move the dreaded “the” from prime position, I’ve found it does usually improve my writing.
Inspiration for writing wonderful first lines comes from unusual places. Last year, The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest awarded prizes for the worst possible first lines. The winner, Elizabeth (Betsy) Dorman penned the immortal lines: “When the dead moose floated into view, the famished crew cheered – this had to mean land! – but Captain Walgrove, flinty-eyed and clear-headed thanks to the starvation cleanse in progress, gave fateful orders to remain on the original course and await the appearance of a second and confirming moose.”
What can we take from this?
1. Don’t make your first line too long.
2. Don’t pack it with information.
3. Don’t write about moose.
Do you agonise over your first lines? What’s your favourite?