“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?