• Jane O'Reilly

First Lines.


Writing an opening line is really hard. Writing that one was hard. It took five attempts to come up with it, and it's not exactly genius. So how do you go about it?

First of all I want to make it clear that writing a good opener is a skill, and like all other skills, you get better at it with practice. Chances of nailing it first time are slim to none. It is also something that is best left until your manuscript is complete. Until you have finished that journey and know where your characters are going to end up and what your story is really about (something often referred to as theme, which I will talk about in another post), it is almost impossible to get the opening line right. So if you are a new writer, struggling through your first manuscript, don't tie yourself up in knots with that first page at the expense of the rest of the script. Waffle your way into that first draft. Write ten pages of backstory. Start in the wrong place, in the wrong point of view, at the wrong time. It doesn't matter. Keep going, get to the end, and then revisit the beginning, and you will probably find that things are much clearer.

So what needs to be in an opener? Let's consider the aim. You want to centre the reader in the story straight away. You need to give them enough, but not too much. Keep backstory to a minimum. The reader needs a lot less than you think. Think about what I call the 5 W's - what, when, where, why and who. You don't need to get all of these into the first line (though you should probably touch on each one in the first page) but these five things are the basic information that a reader needs to centre them in the story. And it doesn't necessarily require a lot of detail. If you find yourself pouring the character's entire backstory onto the first page, you're probably infodumping. Backstory is like salt - you want a little sprinkle here and there.

Here's the opening line of Blue Shift:

'In the semi-darkness of the control room, Jinnifer Blue slouched back in her seat, put her boots up on the controls, and slurped down the last few mouthfuls of lukewarm Soylate from her white Plastex cup.'

At first glance, it doesn't seem like much. But let's look a bit closer. We know who our main character is, and we start to get a sense of who she is. She's female. Her personality starts to leak through with words like 'slouched' and 'slurped.' We know where she is ('control room'). We get some idea that this is a future setting, with words like 'Plastex' and 'Soylate.' The third person POV also tells us we can expect certain things from the story.

Here's another one. This is from Endurance, by S.L Viehl. I've stretched it out to two lines here.

'Wishful thinking, Hippocrates old pal. My life was ruined, my practice was over, and I sure as hell wasn't getting any respect around here lately.'

These lines are GREAT. Why? Because they tell the reader loud and clear that trouble lies ahead. Readers love trouble. It is exciting. These two lines hook the reader in because we immediately want to know more.

How about this one? I've stretched to a full paragraph this time. Some of you might recognise it. This is the opener of Shirley Jackson's 'We Have Always Lived In The Castle.'

'My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.'

The first two lines seem fairly nondescript, childish in their simplicity and the information they give. And that's the point. The personality of our main character (the who) oozes from every single word. Moving on, things become strange, and suddenly we are hooked. 'I could have been born a werewolf.' Strange things lie ahead, and when things are strange, they are immediately interesting. What is most important about this paragraph, however, lies in the last two sentences. Remember what I said earlier about not knowing how to begin until you know how it ends? Those two sentences set up and foreshadow everything that happens in the story. The ending is right there, in those words, even though you might not be able to see it yet.

If you are a novice writer, I would really recommend taking a couple of hours to browse on Amazon which will let you view the opening pages of thousands of books for free. You don't need to read the whole novel. Just look at the first few lines, the first few paragraphs. See which ones hook you and which ones don't, then try to work out what they have in common. See what information readers are given, and how much, how a story is set up, how a character can be built in a single line. Examine word choices. See if you can pull the theme of the novel out of that first paragraph - what is the novel really about? Then have a look at your own story, and see if you can build some brilliant first lines of your own. As cap says,

So what are your favourite first lines?


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