Monday, 15 August 2011

First lines

It dawned on me over the weekend that I haven't blogged about writing in a while. Pretty poor show for a writer's blog, so here's a blog piece that isn't a horror film review.

First lines. They might not be the writer's first chance to make a good impression on a reader - that's probably come from the cover and the bit on the back that gets their interest - but the first line is still one of the most important issues for a writer to bear in mind. Come up with a crappy first line and you reduce your chances of the reader moving on to the second line. And third. And fourth. And so on. Of course, this can be overthought. If a writer spends too much thought and energy on coming up with the supposedly perfect first line, it's probably going to come across as forced and mannered. Never a good idea.

So, what to do? Well, it's simple. Come up with a line which makes the reader want to move on to the next line. Basically, make them want to keep reading. To do that, you have to give some sense of character or place or time or anything the reader can use to picture your story and want to be in that story. You can make it mysterious or exciting or unusual, but it has to make the reader want to keep going. With that in mind, here a few first lines I like.

Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick. (The Shining - Stephen King)

I want to get the story told before we forget how it happened. (The Voyage of QV66 - Penelope Lively)

We are in camp five miles behind the line. (All Quiet On The Western Front - Erich Maria Remarque)

The first tells you who you're reading about; it shows you their personal thought and it also shows you that not only is there another person in the scene who you haven't met yet, it shows you what Jack thinks of them. Potential conflict is set up from the first few words.

Line two gives you a narrator who might be unreliable (always interesting) and it gives you a sense of something important having happened. Finally, you get to know there are more characters than the narrator. Immediately, you're wondering who we are as well as what the story might be.

And the last line gives you a sense of place straightaway. Look at those two words - camp and line. You know right from the start, you're looking at a warzone. And because it's in present tense, you know only as much as a the narrator knows. He doesn't know what's coming so neither do you.

Take a horror novel, a children's book and a classic piece of literature, look at their opening lines and you want to keep reading. With this sort of thing in mind, here are a few of my first lines which I particularly like.

Inside Stu Brennan’s head, a voice screamed his name.  (The Red Girl)

Dando saw the hare a heartbeat before he loosed his arrow. (Deep England)

It took me ten minutes to get home from the shop after stealing the money. (The Great Gig In The Sky)

The Devil held the pen and paper towards Chris Jenkins and smiled. (Winning The Lottery - short story)

Nobody outside the building could say at what time exactly the cloud enveloped it.  (The Mother - short story)

It's up to me to make the reader want to move on. To do that, I give them the best opening for the story. And then the best second line. Then the third. And I don't stop that until the end of the story.


  1. I love, love, love the opening line to The Shining. Perfect stuff!

  2. Yep, it's a good one. I also like...

    The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.

  3. Excellent post! A good reminder to me - I need to work harder on my opening lines.

  4. I have to admit to getting too focused on them in the past. The lines I ended up with were pretty rubbish - all forced and writerly. Now I focus on what fits the story as well as what will make the reader want to keep going,

  5. I don't like Hemingway all that much, but he did write one of my favorite opening lines:
    "He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish."

  6. A great example of a writer knowing what the rules are and knowing when to break them.