A lot of importance is placed on the first lines of novels, and for a writer trying to get their work published, there is no shortage of pressure heaped onto the opening line.
SCARY SUPER IMPORTANT POINTS OF PRESSURE WISE OLD SCRIBES OF WRITING ADVICE TERRIFY ASPIRING WRITERS WITH:
- The first line of your novel must be perfectly written.
- It must encapsulate in 10-20 words the entire mood, tone, and theme of your work.
- Unless your first line is utterly perfect, no agent, editor, or potential reader will ever read long enough to get to your second.
So much emphasis is placed on that very first sentence, it’s no wonder many writers stare at their first chapter in utter terror and can’t find words good enough to put down. So, I want to make something very clear:
THAT TERRIFYING FIRST LINE? THAT NEEDS TO BE ELOQUENT AND ICONIC AND SUCCINCT AND INSPIRING AND PITHY ENOUGH TO ONE DAY BE TATTOOED ONTO SOMEONE’S SKIN?
The only thing your first sentence needs to do … is launch the first scene of your story.
You know that feeling of satisfaction and tidiness when a scene plugs neatly along, no sentence wasted, one action flowing logically into the next? That’s all your first scene needs to accomplish. Your first scene needs to feel like a complete scene, fun, exciting, focused, with no sentence wasted. If you’re focusing all your effort on creating this amazing, iconic first line that’s going to go down into the history books as this painstakingly beautiful sequence of words — guess what? You might be creating a first line that doesn’t actually start your story.
Don’t worry about trying to be funny, or pithy, or iconic, or perfect. Ditch complicated metaphors or long-winded descriptions of the scenery. Just. Tell. The. Story.
STILL STUCK ON YOUR FIRST SENTENCE? HERE ARE SOME MORE IDEAS:
If you’re still on your first draft, don’t worry about any of this. You’re going to change every single word eventually, just keep writing.
But if you’re slogging through revisions and psyching yourself out because you’re trying to make your first sentence perfect, here are some tips for getting into the right headspace:
Read, and reread, and reread again, your final chapter. See if there is anything you can mirror in your opening pages — a moment, an image, a line of dialogue — to provide structure to your story.
For example: Consider the opening line to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” In the final chapter, the characters drive off as Manderley burns behind them. The opening line, implying that Manderley is something in the main character’s past, sets up for the end of the story.
Consider the questions answered in the climax and how you might visit them right off the bat. If the climax of your story is the final destination, there might be something within your climax you could mention in the opening scene to start things off.
For example: in To Kill A Mockingbird, the very first sentence, “When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” is directly related to the final events of the story, when Jem finally does break his elbow. The whole book, one feels, was leading up to this moment.
Consider your story’s Trigger/Inciting Incident and find a way to allude to it in your opening.
For example: A Christmas Carol’s opening line “Marley was dead, to begin with” sets up for the Inciting Incident in the story, where Marley’s ghost visits Scrooge.
There are hundreds of ways in which to start a story, and twenty-four hours in a day for a writer to spend stressing that they haven’t started theirs with the right one. When it comes to writing your first line, I’m going to echo the advice I gave in Your Novel’s First Page, which is this:
What your first line needs to do — the only thing it needs to do — is make the reader want to read the second line.
So, don’t put so much pressure on yourself. Tell your story, and start that story with whatever the first sentence needs to be in order to slap readers right down into the action and get the tale told. If your first sentence does that job, if it’s clear and concise and throws us into the action, it’ll be a great first line.
Happy Writing. 🙂
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