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 Tor.com 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?