Getting Started: First Lines

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“The phone rang. She started awake and struggled to focus on the clock’s glowing numbers. 2:49 am…for a second she thought she’d dreamed the sound, until it rang again. Who could be calling at this hour. “Hello?”

“Have you written your blog post yet?”

Fear gripped her heart with icy fingers. Who could it be? And how did he know her deepest fears? She shrieked, dropping the receiver and diving back under the bed covers, shaking.”

I’ve been talking lately about getting started, about making the time to write each and every day and sticking to that habit so that it becomes not just something you want to do, but something you can’t miss. Of course that’s not all there is to getting started. Let’s assume you’ve followed all the great suggestions that people have posted in the comments, and you’re sitting on your couch, at your desk or in a coffee shop with your laptop or legal pad at hand. You have an idea, you have a couple of characters you like. You take a sip of your coffee and a deep breath. It’s time to write that first line.

First lines in a novel are a lot like the first words you say to an attractive person at a party. You want to get it right, say the words that will make those eyes light up. If you’re dull, you’ve lost his attention. If you’re obnoxious, you’ve chased her away. You want that in-between spot, the phrase that’s just right to draw in your reader and keep him around for the next line and the next. But how?

Alas, I can’t tell you. I can’t, because there’s no one answer. There are suggestions, certainly. But the perfect first line is as individual as the person writing it. If you take a class or attend a workshop or conference, you’ll probably be told never to begin with a phone call. Or a dream, or weather. They tell you this because amateur writers tend to choose those devices so often that editors have seen them a hundred times in every search through the slush pile. The last thing you as a writer want to do is bore the prospective buyer of your work. When I was a kid, my mom would make baked chicken every Sunday for lunch. Every Sunday. After a long while of this, we finally begged her to make something else. Anything would do, just not the same thing we were used to. Baked chicken had become dull and uninteresting. The same thing happens to editors and story openings. If they’ve seen forty stories beginning with a dream this week, they aren’t going to pay attention to yours. Yes, the big names can get away with it, but they’ve already proved to an editor that they can produce a story worth reading. Until you’ve done that, it’s better to stick with the rules.

So no phone calls, no dreams, no weather. What’s left? Well, a lot of things. When I’m beginning a story, I sit down for a while, close my eyes and envision the opening as if it’s a movie. Who shows up first? Where is he? What is he holding? Who’s with him? I’m fond of opening with dialogue. Think about it…people talking is always an attention-draw in the real world, isn’t it? But dialogue can fall into that phone call category if the writer’s not careful, so be sure it’s the right way for your story. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received came from a rejection letter after I submitted to MZB. “Always start your story where things begin to go wrong.” If your protagonist’s life turns upside down because of a car accident, try beginning with the accident. The best first lines have a hint of what’s to come, even if it’s the tiniest hint of all. That hint has to make me curious. It’s like people whispering over the water cooler – you hear just enough to know that you want to know more. That’s the job of the first line. Let’s look at a few.

“With almost ludicrous care, the old man carried the pitcher of beer across the sunlit room toward the older man who reclined propped up in a bed by the window.” – Tim Powers, The Drawing of the Dark

This one’s easy. Why is one man giving an invalid beer? I’m already curious on that alone. The Dark in the title refers to dark beer, and as one reads further, it becomes clear that the beer was being honored more than either of the men in the scene. It’s subtle, but it’s there.

“Dion Welch read auguries in rock-and-roll like some people read Tarot cards, and in very much the same manner.” – Tom Deitz, Soulsmith

Using songs on the radio to tell the future? How nifty was that? I was hooked, because I wanted to know how that worked. The story is about a young man destined to become the magical leader of a contemporary county in Georgia. The magic and the setting are displayed in the first line, in an easy way that gets the reader’s attention.

“She wondered what it would have been like to be perfect.” – Robin Hobb, Ship of Destiny

Who hasn’t wondered this? This time we’re attracted because we can all relate to this feeling. If she’s wondering how perfection would feel, what is it that makes her less? Is it the same thing that makes me imperfect? I’ll keep reading just to find out what’s wrong.

So now that we’ve talked about it a little, and maybe we’re feeling brave…tell me your first lines. Don’t share anything else about the story than that. See what people think might be going on, whether we can guess the tale from the hint of the line. Ready?

Go.

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28 comments to Getting Started: First Lines

  • My best first line is probably the opening of my most recent book, The Horsemen’s Gambit. The story begins in the middle of a battle tournament, so it was a natural:

    “First blood, the rules said. Beyond that, they didn’t specify. A nick of the skin, the severing of a limb, a fatal strike to the breast; any of these would do. First blood.”

  • OK, I’m game.

    Yous asked for it. :) First paragraphs of my NiPs

    KINGS AND REBELS (epic historical Fantasy)
    Roderic de Sinclaire recognised the Nordman leader by the silver falcon emblazoned on a dark green tabard. In the midst of the skirmish, surrounded by the metallic clash of weapons, screaming men and squealing horses, the Nordman cantered towards him, a grim smile on his lips, his blade gleaming in the cold air.

    A LAND UNCONQUERED (book 1 of the EMPIRE AT WAR series, historical fiction)
    Caius Horatius Veranius watched the parade from the shadows of a colonnade on the Clivus Argentarius. The dark haired officer was dressed in cuirass and leather kilt, crested helm tucked under his arm, and he wished he could be part of the cortege.

    EAGLE OF THE SEA (book 2 of the EaW series)
    “I wonder what those Germans are up to.” Marcus Horatius Aquila stared at the camp fires gleaming on the eastern bank of the Rhenus and sparkling on the wavelets rippled by a summer breeze. “They usually stay away from the shore.”

    COLD CALEDONIA’S BLAST (book 3 of the Eaw series)
    Cailtharn stood amidst the carnage. His grip on the sword relaxed and the point sank towards the ground; a few drops of blood splattering on the muddy earth. He blinked the sweat out of his eyes and looked around. The battle was over.

  • damn, why won’t my second part post?

  • What the heck IS the matter? Why won’t this post? :(

    NEVER TO RETURN (historical fiction, standalone, in planning)
    “I’m not selling you a book, filthy barbarian.” The shopkeeper laid his pudgy hands on the polished oakwood counter, shoving aside a partly unrolled parchment scroll in the process, and leaned forward. “The firm of Titus Apollonius Burrus is used to deal with Romans. You can’t even read, I bet.”

    THE CHARIOTEER (historical fiction, standalone, in planning)
    Swords clashed with a vibrating bang. Ciaran jerked awake. A fight in the peristyle yard? In near darkness, he jumped out of the bed, belted his tunica and groped for the sword on the chest beside the bedstead. The tiled floor felt cold under his bare feet but Ciaran did not waste time to lace the sandals. He snatched a shield from the wall and opened the door to the inner yard of the villa, scanning the scene illuminated by some hanging lamps.

    The weird thing is that I need to nail the first scene of a book pretty early in the planning stage, albeit I usually write out of order. In the last two cases there isn’t much beyond some 2-3K beginning, historical background notes, lists of characters and some ideas for conflicts and plot.

  • Here is my first paragraph of my current WIP: (Frayai, Book one of a science fantasy epic)
    The wall shook as a guard passed it, and the guard just looked at it since it always moved during this time of the night. The guard stopped in her tracks when she noticed an enormous portion before her bulged out about two inches. Bricks flew in every direction. The guard covered her head as several bricks flew over her head. One of the bricks grazed her hands. She looked up when she heard movement coming from the opening. She stood where she was and knew she should check on the movement because it meant only one thing–the Drezek had escaped. A shiver passed through her entire body as the redoubtable thought settled into her mind.

  • I’m in debate between to for my WIP:

    One:

    I “slayed” the Dragon. He fought with all the Life he possessed, but my power won. Now he’s just another light in my collection, but he’s my prize.

    Two:

    Red.
    Red and blue.
    Red, blue, and black.
    The black was everywhere… everywhere except… except for…

    –I know the last is more than a paragraph but I thought I’d shoot for the first “complete” sentence.

    Any opinions?

  • Okay, first lines, my darlings. LINE, not paragraph. The idea is to make me guess what your story might be about just from that first line alone. 😀

    David, good opening. I have no idea who’s fighting or why, but I know someone’s going to bleed, and that is always interesting.

    Gabriele, the first lines of KINGS, LAND, COLD (because of his name) and CHARIOTEER definitely set the novels in the past, and EAGLE, COLD and CHARIOTEER made me think of war (CHARIOTEER could have been sword practice, which doesn’t discount war, but just gives me options.) Seeing as you listed “historical fiction” for them, then I’d say your lines did what they should do. NEVER could be fantasy as easily as historical fiction. I’m fondest of EAGLE and NEVER, but that’s probably because as I said, I love to begin with dialogue. It always makes me feel connected to the story.

    Wade, your first line could be historical fiction as easily as SF. If you want to make it very clear, maybe you could specify what the wall’s constructed from. “The biopolymer wall shook as the guard passed it” That way I’m told in a word that we’re not in the past. 😀

  • Axisor, I would choose the second option. What’s red? What’s blue? As a reader, I’ll stick around to find out. In fact, I’d probably go with “Red, blue, and black…it was everywhere.” Immediate and intriguing. Doesn’t tell me what the story’s about, but that’s okay, because you have my attention.

    The past tense of “slay” is “slew”, just in case you decide to stick with that option instead.:D

  • On Frayai, they have to use old technologies to house the Drezek because it can manipulate the future technologies.

  • Okay, sure, I’ll bite. First sentence, right? Okay, here goes.

    My current work that I’m nearly finished with the first draft of: Rogue 5
    Servos whined and jet retros flared as the battle suit pirouetted in a dizzying one-eighty to face the Palantine class suit that had just blasted by.

    My urban fantasy that I’ll be going back to soon: Phoenix Rising
    The prologue (Cheated here, the first sentence is way short, so I’ve got the first few):

    Blackness…
    It’s always the same. No white light, no friends and/or loved ones waiting, no booming voice. Hell, there’s not even some old and tiny woman telling me to ‘go into the light.’ There’s just nothing…well, except maybe for that annoying buzzing right before I come back.

    The first Chapter:
    I was standing in the closest thing to the fiery pits of Hell you can find in the city, the New York subway system.

    Another story I’m coming back to soon, which is Epic Fantasy. Thing is, this one’s a dream sequence, but gives a lot of information about the main character’s past in the first couple paragraphs: Huntsmen
    Ryak slid his sword as silently as he could from its sheath; its weight reassuring in his hand.

    Yet another awaiting for me to come back to it. It’s a cross-genre Sci-Fi/Fantasy: One Who Calls Gods
    Micah Rhiannen stood in the middle of the sparring room, padded staff held loosely in one hand and the butt of one end resting on the floor behind her heel.

    There’s about a million more I could add, but those are the ones I’m currently tinkering with. They’re all pretty much in the first draft, so they may change, but there they be. :)

  • I’m hooked, David.

    Misty — great post and great responses to the replies! I love my WIP opening line best, but my editor wants me to write a Pre-scene with world building. Not happy about that but *I will comply*.

  • Sarah Adams

    Okay, in the spirit of trying, here’s the first line from my WIP. “The pain in Harvey’s left eye woke her before the alarm clock. She groaned and fumbled for the tube of salve as the pain flickered and stabbed. Fire spots flared in her vision and outside, the Stormcrow tapped at the window.”

  • Here’s the first line of a short story I’m working on and I’m giving you just the first line :)

    Anna hated the Hobby.

  • Daniel, all very good! ROGUE 5 is clearly science fiction, plus you’re opening with action. Always a good idea. HUNTSMEN sounds like fantasy to me, mostly because Ryak isn’t expected as a real-world name. It works because something is about to happen, so you’ve got me wondering what. ONE WHO CALLS is similar, since the name is unusual and you’ve got me wondering what wil happen in the next line. But my favorite is PHOENIX, because of the line about the subway. I laughed, and now I trust you to keep giving me good story.

    Faith, that’s a very good point. Writing a good opening line is important, but following the editor’s recommendations is essential.

    Sarah, as someone who has often waked up with a horrible headache, I’m utterly sympathetic to Harvey right from the start. No one wants a headache, of course, but pain is an excellent way to get things rolling. The line itself doesn’t tell me what the book is about, but the following lines, and the mention of the Stormcrow, make me lean toward dark fantasy. How close am I?

    Stuart, I’m giggling. I have no idea what the genre is, but as I said with Sarah, I can relate to Anna. And since the Hobby is capitalized, now I’m dying to know what it is! Which is exactly what you want your first line to do. :)

  • Well, the opening line of my WIP is one I’ve shared here before. It’s internal dialogue:

    Cast! I’m bleeding.

    However, I’ve been thinking for a while now that the novel might actually benefit from having just such a “Pre-scene” as Faith mentioned her editor has requested. And for similar reasons: world building among them.

    At the moment, here is the first line of this pre-scene:

    The prince watched, eyes widening in growing horror, as the prow of his glorious war ship was slowly swallowed in mist.

  • Tom Gallier

    Here are 2 fantasy and 2 urban fantasy WIP. I’m still working on their first line/opening lines, since they are so important. It’s not what I do best.

    Altena. The very name brought thoughts of danger and debauchery to the minds of people all across the Voslands and beyond. It was the infamous port of call for pirates, rogue mages and every known type of misfit, and many weren’t even human. To those who lived in the riverside city, deep in the heart of the vast Vos Swamp, it was a muggy, sweltering city that stank of swamp rot and human waste. It was a city so ancient it pre-dated humanity. Even the elves weren’t sure when it was first settled. – MASK OF THE FOX (Fantasy)

    The horizon shimmied disconcertingly before red-rimmed eyes. The soldiers had to remind themselves it was the heat playing tricks on their eyes. Sometimes it made the scorched rock and gravel look cool and wet. On occasion, a soldier thought the whole area was flooded and would dive in for a swim. – MINIONS OF A DARK EMPIRE (Fantasy)

    My memorial service was at high noon, scheduled to ensure I did not attend. How rude is that?
    I paused in contemplating my personal issues, eyes narrowing as I spotted a possible threat. A vampire was trailing a pair of pretty young things. The two brunettes were dressed to impress in their dance club outfits, and blissfully unaware of the danger. The vampire behind them was tall, dark-haired and gaunt. Kinda creepy, even for a vampire. – COUER DE SADE (UF)

    Blood. That sweet scent got my heartbeat up.
    I stopped at the police crime scene tape. Headlights and flashing emergency lights lit the area well. A good twenty people pressed up against the bright yellow tape, even at two in the morning. – PRIMARY URGES (UF)

  • Tom Gallier

    Oops. I should’ve read further before posting. Sorry. You wanted the first LINE.

  • Thank you, Misty.

    Battles are always a good guess. :) My historical fiction is more or less military fiction with side dishes of political intrigue, famliy feuds, forbidden friendship between a Roman and a barbarian, torn loyalties, and a wee dash of romance. But most of them play around historical battles (a bit like what Bernard Cornwell does). A LAND UNCONQUERED

  • features the battle of the Teutoburg forest and Germanicus campaigns culminating in the battle of Idistaviso, EAGLE OF THE SEA has Dominitan’s campaign against the Chatti in Germany and the battle of Mons Graupius in Scotland, COLD CALEDONIA’S BLAST has not named battle but a number of border skirmished that end in Hadrian’s order to build the wall, NEVER TO RETURN is about Maximinius Thrax’ campaing in Germany which had thought to play out close to the Limes frontier, but has now discovered to have taken place at my backdoor. Well, not exactly, it’s some 20 miles north of it, but way farther into free Germania than anyone ever suspected; the battlefield has been discovered during the last months and for an archaeologist like me this is a LOT of fun. No wonder I found a few plotbunnies there. :)

    THE CHARUOTEER takes place after the Romans left Britain, but at the same time the Visigoth Alaric lais siege to Rome and that will play into the book a bit, plus the wars between the Dalriatans and Picts, and the increasing problems with the Anglosaxons (one of their raiding parties attacks the villa where Ciaran lives at the time).

    KINGS AND REBELS, losely based on 12th century Europe, has its share of battles as well, and several of them historical.

  • And I have to fight a typo demon, it seems 😀

  • Okay, I’ll play!

    First line in my WIP Madison Avery III: “The hot fall sun seemed to go right through me, bouncing up from the aluminum bleachers to warm me from my feet up as I stood beside Nakita and cheered Josh on.”

    Not magical at all, so my editor and I agreed that we ought to stick our neck out and have a 2 paragraph prologue, so the very first words a reader will see are: “I’m Madison Avery, dark timekeeper in charge of heaven’s hit squad . . . and fighting it all the way.” Last sentence in the prologue to keep them reading: “It would be a lot easier if my own people weren’t working against me.” –Kim

  • CE, as I said to David, blood is always an attention-getter! But I like the disappearing ship, too. A princely war ship could imply historical, I suppose, but I’m inclined to think the eerie fog is fantasy or horror (or both!)

    Tom, world-building is a good way to get going, and you’ve done that nicely with MASK and MINIONS. The mention of blood in the first line of PRIMARY tells me immediately the character isn’t just an ordinary person. My favorite is COEUR, though – the irritation over the memorial is funny! Funny is always a good way to begin anything.

    Kim, I understand why your editor would have asked for the prologue even though this is a book in the middle of a series. It’s young adult. Now I can’t bear to read series books out of order, but a great many young adult readers don’t mind leaping about in the series at all. Having that reminder of what the book’s about right from the start is a help. And I love the last line! Gave me the shivers!

  • QUOTE: But my favorite is PHOENIX, because of the line about the subway. I laughed, and now I trust you to keep giving me good story.

    I shall be working hard to do so! :)

    My wife keeps telling me i need to go back to that one as soon as Rogue 5 is done. I think it’s her personal favorite. I was threatened by a friend of mine with torture if I didn’t finish it. 😉

  • Misty, it is epic fantasy. Let’s just say there is a magical component to the fog that can bring about some horrific consequences.

    The I’m bleeding line opens the book after this war ship has made it through and has landed and a squire, who is one of the main characters, stumbles across them and almost gets himself killed before getting away.

    The new pre-scene is from the POV of the main antagonist who has been ensured that a way through the fog has indeed been found and it introduces the coming conflict from the antagonist’s point of view first, which provides some key world building right off the bat, along with the obvious explanation of how this isle has been protected from him for so long.

    While I don’t use the word magic in my books it operates in a similar fashion and it runs the gambit from Light to Dark with both sides wielding power that can get into some horrific territory.

  • Ooh! I’ll play.

    Here’s the first line of an un-named demon slayer novel.

    The smell of brimstone still clung to Mary’s hair and bits of exploded demon stuck to her leather jacket.

    (here’s the rest of the paragraph just for context and because I can’t help myself: The faint colors of dawn rose in the east as the cab wove its way from the Fayetteville airport toward home. So late it was early, thanks to the dreary red-eye from Los Angeles coupled with mechanical problems, weather over the plains, and the misery that is the E terminal in the Charlotte airport–and now flashing lights and a cop car in front of her place. )

    It’s so cool to read all of these!

  • Sarah Adams

    Thanks for the feedback Misty and thank you everyone else for some awesome first lines. Now I want to read these things! (Misty – yes, it’s urban fantasy. Harvey’s a suburban mom in Buffalo NY. She’s also a berserker, which makes PTA meetings interesting.)

  • First Line as of right now….

    His razor sharp sword sliced through the throat of his faceless opponent; they were all faceless – obstacles to his prize.

  • Mikaela

    I am late, I know. I have been in Portugal.
    First line(s) from one of my ideas:
    Take her with you. I flinched from the pain in the words, unsure wheter it come from my memory or the girl sitting in the interogatin room on the other side of the window.