First lines

26 Apr

Some of my favorite first lines follow:

“Once upon a time…” – Everyone has used this one.

“There are many perks to living twenty-one centuries, and foremost among them is bearing witness to the rare birth of genius.” – Hounded by Kevin Hearne

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” – Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

“They shoot the white girl first.” – Paradise by Toni Morrison

“The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.”— Blood Rites: A Novel of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” – The open scrawl to the Star Wars movies by George Lucas

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” – The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Do these first lines draw you in? Do they paint a picture? Each is famous. Each is epic. Does the first line of your story capture the reader? If not, close this post and get back to work.

NO, NO. I’m just kidding. Read the rest of this post, make a comment, and then get back to writing.

The opening line I want to talk about is “Once upon a time…”. We have all heard this since we were too young to understand what it meant. If there every was a line that puts the reader into “Fantasy” mode, “Once upon a time…” is it. Those four words remove the reader to another time. The reader is prepared for something outside the norm. To some extent the word “Once…” is enough to accomplish the same effect.

The problem with those four words, is that they are cliché. They have been used so much, that to some extent, they have lost their effectiveness. Alone, they no longer carry the weight they once did. However, when followed by the right series of words, they still perform magic. For example:

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” – Back When We Were Grown-Ups by Anne Tyler

My response to this first line is “Really? How?”. This is exactly what the author wanted me to say. With fifteen words, I am drawn into the story and my interest is building. Think about the affect the first dozen words of your story have on the reader. Now, think of the reader as a potential agent, editor, or publisher. Does your first line FORCE them to continue reading? If not, stop writing the rest of your story until you have that first line perfect. Great plot, characters, pacing, etc. will be for naught if the reader puts your story down after the first line. It is that important.

Now get back to writing.


Posted by on April 26, 2013 in Thoughts on Writing


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13 responses to “First lines

  1. Megan Cashman

    April 26, 2013 at 11:31 am

    I find the opening lines, or even paragraph, to be so stressful. You want to not only entice the reader but capture an important scene with the right words immediately. Those two weigh heavily on me when I write. But I’ll get better with it, I believe. 🙂

    • Dennis Langley

      April 26, 2013 at 12:41 pm

      As Stephen King says, “Practice, Practice, and then Practice some more.” Sound advice.

  2. Scott weber

    April 26, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect-like creature.” The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. A fav first line of mine

  3. Charissa

    April 26, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    First lines are important. But most books I read have just an okay first line, but something in that 1st paragraph hooks me. If nothing hooks me within a couple paragraphs, I’m going to lose interest fast.

    • Dennis Langley

      April 29, 2013 at 8:55 am

      I agree. Great first lines are the best. However, if the first sentence is not stellar, the first or second paragraph better make up for it or I’m gone.

  4. jadereyner

    April 26, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    Excellent post – I hope that my first line is a good one!!

    • Dennis Langley

      April 29, 2013 at 8:56 am

      Thanks. That’s why we use beta readers. Good feedback is crucial, especially for the opening.

      • jadereyner

        April 29, 2013 at 1:17 pm

        As I am learning it all from scratch, I didn’t know about Beta readers until too late! I did get a couple of independent people to read through but I will definitely be looking into Beta readers for novel no. 2. !

  5. Helen McMullin

    April 26, 2013 at 9:46 pm

    “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad,” from Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini has always been my favorite. My Mom quoted this to me when I was a kid and it sent me straight to the library for the book.

  6. Matthew Wright

    April 29, 2013 at 5:47 am

    Call me Ishmael. I agree – the first line is, indeed, pivotal. Also very hard to write, usually! I always enjoy Heinlein’s – he had a knack with them. Conversely, Arthur C Clarke was a master at the closing line which – to my mind – runs next in importance when constructing just about any piece of writing.

    • Dennis Langley

      April 29, 2013 at 8:59 am

      I see your point about the last line being important as well. However, I have written so few of them that Practice will be needed there. 🙂


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