Getting the First Lines Right

By on 7. September 2016, in General

So, you’re writing a novel?

Great. You’ve taken that crucial step to start a new novel. Maybe you’ve written one before, maybe this is your first.

Either way, you find yourself staring at a blank page – an empty void of white nothingness on to which you intend to pour your creative brilliance…

And then you stop. You stop because you haven’t got a clue how to start it.

You’ve got yourself a plot. You’ve got yourself a set of characters. You’ve got tragedies and heart breaks all planned out and the fate of entire worlds resting in your hands…

And yet, you just can’t seem to get that first line out.

You sit at your computer for minutes – maybe even hours – thinking about it. Dwelling on it. Desperately trying to force that magical first sentence out and, in the back of your mind, you are haunted by the words of dozens of authors before you – the ones who tell you that your first line needs to be killer, needs be exciting, needs to be…

Awesome.

Sounding familiar?

Of course it does. It happens to all of us. And the important thing to realise is that this is normal. Writing a first sentence comes easily to some and is a monumental struggle for others. You might be the former, you might be the latter – but whichever one you are, before you spend hours slaving away on that opening line, remember this…

Whatever you write will suck.

That’s right. You heard me. It will suck.

And for good reason too.

It will suck because you still haven’t got every detail of your plot sorted yet. It will suck because you’re not sure where you want your story to start from. It will suck because you haven’t got your themes down or you haven’t quite finished developing your characters yet.

Even if you have done all these things, it will still suck.

You might even have scoured the web for all the tricks and gimmicks for creating a killer first line. You might have decided to start with a simple fact. You might have tried by setting the mood or the voice of your novel. You might even have been clever and tried to put a subtle hint to your ending in those very first few words…

Yet it still doesn’t quite work.

Still sounding familiar?

Opening lines are difficult for a reason. In those first few words or sentences you not only need to grip your reader, but you need to show them what journey you are going to take them down. You need to be able to bring them into your world with the merest utterance of syllables and still have them clinging on by the time you reach the next paragraph.

That is not an easy task.

But there are ways that you can make it easier on yourself:

  1. Read some opening lines 

It almost sounds like an overused saying – ‘great writers read’ – but it’s true. If you really want to get that killer opening line, you need to look at how other people do it. And I don’t mean just casually look – I mean really look. Pick them apart and work out what makes them tick – compare them to the stories themselves, the themes, the characters and see what the opening line tells you about the rest of the story.

If your unsure how to start, my own blog contains a weekly segment on First Lines that may help you start

2. Know your themes 

Your novel will live and die by its themes. Use your opening lines to give the reader a snippet of those themes – but don’t make it too obvious. If your theme is about people spinning stories about each other, maybe start with a line about storytelling. If your theme is about the evolution of an idea, maybe personify the idea’s struggle to become reality. Either way, at least consider getting one of your themes in that opening paragraph – let your reader know exactly where your planning on taking them – even if its only at a subconscious level.

3. Show them your voice

If your novel is dark and brooding, create an atmosphere that matches it from the start. If it’s whimsical, make your first line silly or meandering in nature. Terry Pratchett and William Goldman are great examples of whimsy novel writers at their best – their opening lines not only manage to hit the themes on the head, but also show you what style of voice you can expect right from the off.

4. Don’t force it

Opening lines take time so don’t try to make them the first thing you get right. Get your novel written and then, once you have a good idea of what you’ve created, go back and work on that first line. But don’t expect it to happen by force. Some opening lines come easily. Others don’t start to appear until the fifth or sixth draft. The important thing is to just keep working at it until you’ve got something that you think is perfect. If you know your story well enough, it will happen – I guarantee it.

5. Leave your reader asking questions

Make a point of not answering anything in your first paragraph. If your story is about a vampire don’t start with the line, ‘Jim was a vampire who went to school with normal kids.’ Unless you are writing for children it just won’t engage your audience. So try something else. Maybe try, ‘Jim could still taste the blood – he’d forgotten to brush his teeth again.’ Leave your readers with a load of questions and absolutely no answers – give them a reason to keep reading on and don’t give them a payoff until they have a load more questions they want answered. It will get them hooked and turning those pages like there’s no tomorrow.

Ultimately, first lines come down to several key words. If you have those in the back of your mind, you can’t fail to get it right in the end:

Questions. Theme. Atmosphere. Voice. 

And, above all else, make sure you read some examples – preferably from stories that you’ve read. After all, you read past the first page for a reason – right?


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