Wednesday 20 March 2013

Once upon a Time, in the Beginning

First lines are tricksy things, and they're tricksy twice over.

First lines set the mood. A good first line starts you on firm footing; a bad first line and you're already shaky, you already have to work to get back on the level.

It occurred to me the other day that first lines occur twice in a piece of writing's life. There's the obvious one: a reader looks at your website, or picks up your book, or turns the magazine's page to your story, and the first words they read are going to shape their initial impression of you, your writing, and your story.

I mean, how much pressure is that!?

If I see a sloppy first line I have to ask myself, if the author or the editor didn't care enough to make sure that first line was the best it could be, what must the rest of the story be like? An average first line is alright, the book could go either way from there, I'll read on. But an amazing first line grabs hold of you and hooks you right there and then.

OK, so sometimes a good first line draws you in and then the next few lines hook you, but you get the idea.

"As always, before the warmind and I shoot each other, I try to make small talk."

That's the first line from Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief. And it's superb. It instantly has me curious, it's unusual and interesting and I want to know more. The Quantum Thief actually has several great first lines - at the beginning of most of its chapters.

"Once there was a city of women."

Mike Carey, Linda Carey and Louise Carey from The City of Silk and Steel. It's succinct and again, interesting, it makes me want to read on. Simplicity can work.

"On playing back the 911 recording, it'd seem that Mrs. Stegman was more concerned that the man outside her apartment door was naked than that he had a big shotgun."

Warren Ellis, Gun Machine. Less elegant perhaps, but it sets the tone, it amuses, it puts me in the mood to read more. And that's the important thing.

First lines are not the be-all and end-all of whether a story is good, of course. I'm sure plenty of bad stories have fantastic first lines, and vice versa. But if the first thing you present is bad, you've already got an uphill struggle to convince the reader that the story is a good one.

But I mentioned two occurrences. And the other is when the writer begins. The first words he puts onto the blank page. We all know how terrifying that expanse of empty white is, like a sheet of ice that needs breaking so that the narrative ship can sail smoothly through, and other such laboured metaphors.

If the first words I put to paper are great, it puts me in a good mood. If they come easily and hit the spot then, as a writer, I am already well-disposed towards the rest of the story. The story already feels good, and if I'm feeling good about it, then the odds are it's going to flow more naturally and read more naturally from then on.

A troublesome start, an idea that doesn't quite fall right, a character who feels clumsy from the outset, will put me in a frustrated mood, tense, and that will come through in the writing. It can be edited of course, and by the end I might have a better feel for the characters and the story and rewriting the opening might be easy, but I have to work harder to get into the story and bring that character to life. And just as when I'm reading a story, if I'm struggling to enjoy something I'm writing, I may not even get to the end.

As a reader, and as a writer, I enjoy a good opening. Both in reading and in writing one. Sometimes they come easily, and sometimes they can be elusive, troublesome bastards. But never, ever underestimate their importance.


  1. Yeah, but ... I've been working a lot on mine, so know the importance, but also I've read - started reading - a couple of books lately, bought on th strength of first line/first para/first page then been thoroughly disillusioned when the rest of the book has been either disappointing or even total crap, i.e. either the hard work hasn't been applied to the rest of the book (first line is cosmetics) or it doesn't truly represent the writing.
    But on the other hand, readers are inclined to be pretty forgiving much of the time

    1. Which in some sense gives credence to the importance of the first line. You bought the books on the strength of that, and you might have easily turned down a good book which had a bad first line. And if you were choosing between two, you might pick up the worse for having a better first line.

      As you say, it isn't necessarily a reflection of the book as a whole, but it is so important. And definitely something worth spending time thinking about and working on. =)

  2. Recently I looked at the first lines of a number of classic books. A couple were amazing. Many of them were less than special. None were overwritten though...

    1. Speaking of overwritten, how remiss of me to not mention "It was a dark and stormy night, etc. etc..."

      Some first lines are decidedly ordinary, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. But a bad first line means you're already fighting to regain the reader's love.