Love At First Line


There’s something special about the first line of a story.  Many in the industry call it the hook, and it functions in much the same way as a steel hook with a worm on it when you go fishing.  The wrong opening line will be, at best, ignored or skipped over.  At worst, the reader will take a look, then put the book back on the shelf, never to be opened again. All the lines we write are important, but that first line is something like the first glance between young lovers.  Think about all your favorite books, and the way they opened.  That first line grabs your attention and holds it in place with the promise of a great story to come.  The best first lines stay in your memory forever.   “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”   “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”  “It was a pleasure to burn.”  Lines like these don’t give you any choice but to stick around and see where the author is headed. 

Coming up with the perfect opening line is only slightly less difficult than reaching faster-than-light speeds on one’s roller skates.  Anyone who’s been at this game of ours for more than a story or two knows the hell of reaching for that elusive blend of the perfect words.  I learned a long time ago not to torture myself too long, worrying at the sentences in my mind like a dog with a rag.  Believe me, nothing can make you crazier than getting hung up on finding that line.  You’ll end up with two pages of story written and a whole lot still trapped in your head, because you just…can’t…move…on. 

Then again, sometimes the ideal line presents itself.  This happened to me with the New Shiny. The perfect first line was actually the first line I wrote.  It had no names, no places, but in a few words you knew that something pretty terrible had happened.  Great, right?  Yeah, it was, until I let it  lead me into a different sort of self-torture…the worry that it wasn’t really the perfect first line.  Maybe I should start the story earlier.  Maybe the image of dripping blood would be too disgusting to hook readers.  Maybe those words are secretly a magical combination of sounds that will set Armageddon in motion.  Oh no!  What have I done!  Run for the hills, people!

There’s no guaranteed way of composing the perfect first line.  You’ll know it when you see it.  If you see it and you’re second-guessing yourself, share it with trusted beta readers, who will also know it when they see it, but won’t be suffering under the weight of doubt you are.  If you’re having trouble coming up with a good hook, I’d suggest looking at the conflict that opens your story, and trying to write from within that conflict.  It’s more compelling than sticking with the old familiar and passive openings.  You’ve heard it said that you shouldn’t open with the weather, or a phone call, or someone waking from a dream.  It’s not that these aren’t good openings – it’s because they’ve been done so often and so poorly.  This is your book, and you want it to be exceptional.  Don’t scrimp on the opening line.

There’s a game that’s played on some writing forums, it was mentioned this week on and I thought it might be a good time to start a round of it here.  Many of us are staring at the end of NaNoWriMo in desperation right about now, with very little brain left to get through the last two days.  Others are prepping for holiday madness.  So let’s have a little fun.  It’s called the First Line game (how’s that for creativity?)  I’ll post three opening lines, and if you know one (or all), you post the novel’s title in the comments.  When you post the answer, you then have to offer up another opening line for the rest of us to guess, and so on.  Try to resist the desire to Google the answer, if you can.  While you’re reading first lines, let the good ones soak into your imagination, and who knows – while you’re playing and not stressing about it, the perfect line for your book could reveal itself.  Ready?

a) I wake up on a pile of smoldering garbage and leaves in the old Hollywood Forever cemetery behind the Paramount Studio on Melrose, though these last details don’t come to me until later.
b) With almost ludicrous care, the old man carried the pitcher of beer across the sunlit room toward the still older man who reclined, propped up in a bed by the window.
c) The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed. 

18 comments to Love At First Line

  • The first line, a), is from Sandman Slim, by Richard Kadrey. I surprised myself remembering it and confirmed it with Amazon’s Look Inside option.

    I’ll provide an easier one, as it is so memorable:

    “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

    And the opener for my own novel, Brood of Bones:

    “I never learned the knack for waking.”

  • Don’t know any of Misty’s–

    But AE’s Is Pride and Predjudice by Jane Austen.

    Here’s Mine:

    “This is where the dragons went.”

  • Deb S

    I’ll play.

    c) The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed, is from The Gunslinger by Stephen King.

    My entry has MW connections. I’m not a complete brown noser, I loved the line the first time I read it:

    There were some days that deserved to be drowned at birth and everyone sent back to bed with a hot brandy, a box of chocolates, and a warm, energetic companion.

  • Wow, AE – I really thought the Sandman Slim woukd be a stumper! I loved that book but I rarely run into anyone else who’s read it. *smile* And good job, Deb – you probably already know, but that line is also the last line of the last book in the series.

    If anyone wants a hint on my second line, it’s from a book by my very most favoritest author. Yep, I like him so much my grammar goes all wonky!

  • Unicorn

    Pea Faerie – That’s “Guards! Guards!” by Sir Terry Pratchett, isn’t it?
    Okay, here’s mine… probably too easy…
    “The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened.”
    Thanks for the game, Misty! First lines are one of my weaknesses. The current first line for my WIP in revision is [TK rewrite opening because it sucks]…

  • Cieloan

    Unicorn’s is from “The Eye of the World” by Robert Jordan, and it had me stumped since it’s the first line of the prologue (which I barely even remembered existed…).

    I’m not sure if it’s cheating, but while mine is from a book that has a prologue(s), I’m skipping it and quoting the first line of the first chapter (because it is awesome).

    “They say that the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates a man’s mind wonderfully; unfortunately, what the mind inevitably concentrates on is that, in the morning, it will be in a body that is going to be hanged.”

  • “‘In five years, the penis will be obsolete’, said the salesman.”

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I don’t know the answer to one of these, but I just have to say that Deb S’s offering is driving me crazy. I HAVE read that, and I thought at first I knew what it was from, but Amazon’s Look Inside declares me wrong on that count.

    Also, it seems that my favorite books only have snappy first lines if they are YA…

  • Cielon’s is the opening line from Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett. (Gawd, I love that man’s books.)

    “There were prodigies and portents enough, One-Eye says. We must blame ourselves for misinterpreting them.”

  • I’m almost 100% sure I’ve read Misty’s b) selection, but I cannot place it by title, author, or plot. Quick! Someone give us the answer – it’s driving me crazy.

  • OMG, I thin I have one….
    “In five years the penis will be obsolete” – Steel Beach, John Varley

    I thought this was almost 100% unfair, as I can never remember first lines. I’ve read tons of books, how could I remember 100s of first lines.

    Some first lines are not so great, yet are memorable…
    “It was a dark and stormy night…” – And I’d love to hear a more contemporary reference…it’s from a book I actually really love, and it’s not ‘Paul Clifford’

  • Okay, this one is going through my head now, so I’ll share.

    “In an old house in Paris all covered in vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.” (Bonus points if you immediately recite the next sentence after that.)

  • Misty’s b: is Tim Powers’ The Drawing of the Dark.

    Here’s mine:
    “Flea-bitten… jug-headed… lop-eared–” I sucked in a deeper breath, “–thrice-cursed son of a Sahet goat!”

  • I know Sarah’s! That’s from Madeline!
    …the smallest one was Madeline. (Well, I remembered the bit at the end, anyway.)

    I agree with Roxanne, sometimes it’s hard to remember first lines.

    My turn:

    “She scowled into her glass of orange juice.”

  • Deb S

    Hep, didn’t mean to drive you crazy. Mine was from The Cipher by Diana Pharaoh Francis.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you! That explains it. I haven’t read the book yet, but I DID read that first line in the course of browsing.

  • Ken

    I’ve got a great one: “The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.”

    And, from my own WIP: “Denton Murphy looked out upon all the beauty and majesty of the universe and he said, “Sometimes, I hate my job.””

  • MJRousos

    I’ll bet Roxanne’s ‘other’ dark and stormy night is A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

    Here’s another for someone to guess:

    “She had been running for four days now, a harum-scarum tumbling flight through passages and tunnels.”