First Lines

David Trammel's picture

An old bit of advice I was given on writing was "led with action", that is give your reader something to grab at the opening. When this was for novels or short stories, it was good advice. Now though with online forums and even shorter attention spans on the reader's part, you need to hook them with the first sentence.

Here is a great article on the craft of hooking a reader with your very first word.

"What Makes a Great Opening Line?"

"The responses to my Twitter inquiry crystallized a nascent theory I’d been formulating about what made certain first lines memorable and propulsive—because, although the sentences came in all varieties, a pattern emerged. Nearly all the favorite first lines gave readers an elegantly balanced dose of clarity and curiosity. Or to put this another way: seductive first sentences ground a reader in a situation, while also prompting a question in the reader’s mind that propels them forward in the text.

This might seem simple from the outset, but clarity and curiosity can be at odds with one another if not calibrated carefully; too much of one attribute can overwhelm the other, diminishing the overall power of the first sentence.

But let’s define these terms more thoroughly before going any further. By “clarity,” I mean the ability of a first sentence to give readers an initial hand-hold for place and/or time and/or character and/or plot. Clarity is essential for a first sentence because, at the start of a story or novel—barring whatever information a reader might have encountered on the jacket copy or in reviews—the reader’s mental theater is a void. An unlit stage. A nothingness. Every word in that first sentence is an opportunity to shine a light on what is to come—to give a reader enough information to stabilize them in some degree of who and where and what the story is about.

What invokes curiosity in a reader, and thereby keeps them reading? In my opinion: weirdness, conflict, tragedy, mystery, the supernatural, any whiff of struggle, or something being slightly off. Reading Zink’s first sentence for Wallcreeper, I found myself wondering big questions like: Why did Stephen swerve? What happened next? Where were these people going and why? But I also found the narrator’s tone to be a little odd. The word “occasioned” is an unusual verb, suggesting a distinctive attitude. This diction made me willing—no, eager—to read more.

Reviewing Twitter’s favorite first lines, I was struck by another commonality, housed under the umbrella of clarity and curiosity. Maybe you have already noticed from the examples given in this essay—but it seems that many iconic first sentences mention death. Though at first I found the ubiquity of death in people’s favorite fiction openers a touch disturbing, upon reflection this commonality made perfect sense. In all these sentences, death is presented alongside some mention of time; time and death, one could argue, are clarity and curiosity pushed toward a logical end point. Information about time offers readers a sense of clarity by indicating the temporal architecture of a story. And the mention of death—the greatest unknown—makes us curious, which generates narrative momentum."


What do you think as a writer?

Ken's picture

This is intriguing. My current book's first line is one I have struggled with somewhat. I wasn't that happy with it when I wrote it but left it alone, figuring I'd go back to it. A hundred thousand words later and I'm finally getting back to it. Intuitively I felt that my first line needed the very qualities mentioned in the article (which interestingly, I found poorly written) though I think the concept of balancing Clarity and Curiosity is going to be truly helpful to me.

After reading the first bit of the article, I went to the closest fiction bookcase and started copying first lines; six notebook pages later I stopped to give my hand a break and review the first lines; looking for patterns. Mind you, all these books are ones that I felt enough admiration for that they have space on my limited shelves, so this isn't quite as random as it might be at the public library. Nevertheless what popped out at me was how well some first lines were at giving a genuine sense of what the story is about. Also the variation in the length of first sentences was stunning; from three words to three hundred and sixty! The latter was from 'Wolf' by Jim Harrison and the former was 'Moby Dick'. Neither of which really accomplishes the dual goal of offering context with clarity AND invoking curiosity. In fact, many of the first lines were notably bad, though many of these redeem themselves in the subsequent sentences. I am finding that I prefer the modest length lines that offer enough context to be clear but also make me curious enough to keep going. Most surprisingly was how the first lines were frequently able to set a tone that carried through the whole book. It could be that because I've read all these books that the first lines have more meaning to me than a first time reader. I'll try this exercise in the library with books I've never opened before some time and see if I get similar results.

Just for fun, here are a few of the first lines that I felt were quite good:

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."

"As a child Trudi Montag thought everyone knew what went on inside others."

"In the sea, once upon a time, O my Best Beloved, there was a whale, and he ate fishes"

"The primroses were over."

"You fell out of the sky," the coyote said."

And finally, what I consider the best first line ever:

"In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing."

Thank you for inspiring this exercise, David! Oh, the first line of "The Book of Kai" currently reads:

"Kai proffered the just finished pair of oars, dark oak-tanned leathers glowing, the painstaking layers of flawless, pale gold varnish accentuating their lean elegance of form."

See why I need to work on it?

One obvious difference is that it is twice as long as the longest of the others. There are also a lot of descriptive terms that weigh it down.

I'm puzzled about leather oars....

Kai proffered the two gleaming golden oars, newly-finished and elegant....

so who is he offering them to? Me, the reader?

Ken's picture

Oars have leathers for protection from abrasion on the rowlocks or gunnels if using thole pins.

add photo: 
Ken's picture

It's probably better to analyze First Paragraphs than First Sentences. A first sentence taken out of the context of the paragraph that follows is not a great reflection of the whole.

I've always known those as oar sleeves! Ah Ha moment!

P.G. Wodehouse used to make fun of those kinds of prescriptive Sacred Odors from On High. They have to do with the business of marketing more than art. So if your goal is to buttonhole someone’s attention with the intention to make them ‘buy’ your story – either with money or suspended disbelief – I suppose it is worthwhile as an exercise to help writers sharpen our focus and brisk up our language.

But for my part, I think it is a post-hoc kind of rule: something marketers have seized on as a way to try to force writers to turn out a consistent nicely regulated consumer-ready product, like making all bread loaves exactly the same size coming out of a commercial oven. It simply does not apply to a home-baked loaf that is not meant to be entered in the County Fair to be judged by ‘experts’ whose taste may or may not square with the either the public or the writers themselves.

Time after time I hear of works that were rejected out of hand by the whole kit and kaboodle of self-appointed arrogant arbiters of what the Public Wants – only to have the artist/writer/musician/painter force the issue with the help of friends, by happy accident, by self-publishing, or just the passage of time after they are dead and their work is re-evaluated by a new generation that sees what they were seeing years earlier.

THEN the works gain huge success and money value. The self-anointed Tastekeepers and business ‘experts’ are plainly and simply wrong. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series gained popular acclaim only because her daughter did an end run around the unanimous opinion of the adult book marketeers that ‘the public did not want’ to read about stories of poverty and hardship during the years of the Depression. In fact, the public ate up that stuff with a spoon and asked for more.

I say listen to what your Muse tells you and do your demnedest to satisfy your own sense of what is true and right and fitting to say. Start where you want, go on as you please and end when you feel like wrapping things up. If you subsequently find value in the suggestions of editors, by all means let them guide and shape your prose. But do not hamstring your creative work by trying to obey the dictates of Elite Art Nazis. and do not by any means try to police the tone of your Muse’s fluid revelations.

I think the Public really does not care to have its tastes limited by the crude and self-serving tastes of the marketeers. Success in the public mind and success in elite’ opinion are often diametrically opposed.

Elites want the same thing all over again in perpetuity, with slight variations to simulate ‘originality’ like vanillin is a cheap, synthetic substitute for vanilla. The Public however wants change and novelty, new sensations in a familiar, digestible format. Neither group really wants true orginality especially in form. The constraints of public opinion and business conservatism are nothing new. Artists as different as Emily Dickinson and Robert Heinlein both felt it. Dickinson came up against the weight of Victorian era culture and simply backed away from the crazy people. Heinlein made his living writing heavily censored and bowlderized chiildren’s books under the collective thumbs of school librarians. After years of this repression, he broke out with Stranger in a Strange Land to express what he was really thinking about — lots of open sex and weird psychic abilities.

Louisa May Alcott preferred to write ‘blood and thunder’ novels but her money was earned by writing what she called ‘moral pabulum” (baby food). She sold the sensationalist novels anonymously, fighting family opinions all the way.

Georgette Heyer was spectacularly successful with her Regency ‘fluff’ novels though she preferred to write deeply researched, accurate historical novels. She despised the taste and slighted the intelligence of the readers who made her Regency works profitable enough to support her family. Her books sold so well that she could dispense with all the hoopla of publicity men. She refused to accede to publisher demands that she put her person on display for the general public to gawk at. She would not allow them to put a photo of her on her book covers. She never signed books or made any personal appearances. She did not need to – her name alone was a guarantee of good sales. But she did not enjoy the work that made the most money.

When breaking new ground in art, it helps to a have small coterie of insiders and fellow artists who are all learning from and challenging one another. Both the public and the gatekeepers crowd are more apt to pay attention and lose some resistance when little knots of people are doing work that excites them and satisfies their own needs to express what they feel and perceive. Some of the elite ingroupers always glom on to the latest thing and they help counteract the reactionary conservatism of the business-minded.

The chief thing for artistic work is to be in the process and get your enjoyment from the actual work, not from the profits it makes. For that matter, this is true of most kinds of work. If you enjoy the work itself and it has value to those around you, that is the greatest prize in life. We spend more of our time working than anything else, except breathing. If the bulk of that time is satisfying, if your labor supplies your needs and a bit extra to share…well, no devil’s bargain for lots of money at the cost of your soul can match that prize.

Ken's picture

Thank you for the reminder that the real reason I write is to find out what happens. I write what I want to read; it's really that simple. Unfortunately, I also need to make money from my craft if I am to keep doing it. Writing for the love of the craft is lovely and I admire that point, but a fantastically entertaining, genuinely educational, maybe even transformational work (like Stranger in a Strange Land was to me), does no one any good if it languishes in a drawer or more likely today, on a thumb drive. And first sentences, as the beginning of first paragraphs, as the beginning of the whole story, really ARE important. That doesn't mean editors are NAZIs (though undoubtedly plenty act that way), it means that most people pick up a book at the bookstore, read a bit, generally starting with the first sentence, and if it doesn't 'grab' them, they put it down and pick up another book. I do it myself. Is it fair to the rest of the book? No, of course not. But it is what happens.

Editors really can make a book better. They can also gut it of everything that makes it interesting and unique! But in general, they are trying to make the book more accessible and saleable. And I'm okay with that. If it means writing a new first paragraph that intentionally is about hooking a reader, well, that is a challenge that I will take up. I don't think it is a betrayal of my art, or my muse, to deliberately try to make a piece of writing interesting enough to get a reader to spend $35 on a hardcover edition.

I’ve no objection to people being more other-oriented and more focused on the art of beguiling the public eye than on attending to the dictates of the inner voice. Some people like fishing; others go wandering in fairyland to meet other metaphysical perils. Both sorts have challenges and fun.

What I object to is more the didactic tone and adamantine attitudes that THIS and THIS ALONE is the One and ONLY Way to Write Well. Creative writing is not something that can be reduced to a formula. That is craftsmanship, not originality. I also think that the creativity aspect can be over-emphasized, to the point of making, say, a clay pottery object that has neither beauty nor functionality but which is certainly original!

For what it is worth, I also object to the standard advice that is based on Aristotle’s Poetics. You know the drill: there must be a Conflict between Main Character and something else (Nature, other entities, oneself, etc. ad nauseum). This Conflict must Increase exponentially. Apply friction liberally from all directions. Add flour to make Plot Thicken when Friction Heat is near peak. Attain Peak, pop Bubble with one sharp thrust, feel the Release of all Tensions, and rapidly descend the steep slope toward sleep. After refreshing sleep, re-enter Reality through Exit Door and get back to work. Playtime is over now; having cathartically dumped all your bad feelings into the world of fiction you are now ready to go out and conquer something or other.

Well, Aristotle is not the end all and be all of writing. Why must there be a Conflict? Who says so? Why may there not be a smooth, pleasing concord, or a lazy, free-floating drift among a plenum of beauties to behold? Or an attractive notion to ponder? Why can I not write an entire novel about the joys of seeking understanding through mathematics and music? Just because Aristotle says so? Pah! (I need to look up what Nietzsche says about poetics. I bet he has something scathing I could quote.)

Even so dedicated a student of the Aristotelian mode as T. Aquinas realized on his deathbed that everything he had written was “as straw” to the reality of the spirit world.

The best writing is like the best engineering, in which form follows function, and function enhances form. If the form for what you wish to say does not exist, you have to MAKE it; i.e., CREATE it so that the delicacy or truth of your vision is not trapped in a Procrustean bed of rigidly critical, dull, common expectations.

So, yeah, if writers are comfortable with an existing form and find that it suits what they want to say, refining and polishing is what one does to perfect the work. That is the same kind of creativity as writing a sonnet, where the form is fixed. But if the form does NOT fit the content and must be invented out of imagination, a good deal of trial and error is needed. You might have to try lots of different things before you hit on the best result. All I am saying is do not let yourself be locked into fussy prescriptions if you choose to create something that is uncommon and unexpected. Give yourself the freedom to NOT succeed. Because ‘to succeed’ also means ‘to follow after.’ If you want to get out in front and lead, you will be following no one. They will be following YOU!

Ken's picture

"The best writing is like the best engineering, in which form follows function, and function enhances form. If the form for what you wish to say does not exist, you have to MAKE it; i.e., CREATE it so that the delicacy or truth of your vision is not trapped in a Procrustean bed of rigidly critical, dull, common expectations."

Now THAT is a brilliant paragraph! When push comes to shove, I find myself consistently on the side of art and not commerce, spirit not comfort, and yet, when I get right down to how I spend my time, I really need there to be a financial payoff. I don't think that necessarily means that I have to compromise my writing, but then again I've never been through this process before, so maybe that will become an issue at some point. I really do appreciate your reminder that self-limitation during the writing process is a bad idea. On the other hand, as JMG often points out, "The opposite of a bad idea is usually another bad idea." I have often found that SOME limits actually stimulate creativity. Accepting the writing challenge of creating a stellar, grab-you-by-the-gonads first paragraph for my story is both getting me to study the craft of writing more deliberately and refining my awareness of sentence structure.

That's right--the editing and refining process is distinct from the creative flow. One need not negate the other. But keeping the balance is like tightrope walking sometimes.