In Journalism, particularly in feature writing, it’s drilled into you how important the first line of your piece is. It’s meant to be factual, informative, compelling and interesting all at once. The headline should have done most of the work for you, leading the eye of the reader down to the first sentence of the text, but it’s the job of the first line to keep them there. Why should a reader, a person who has a lot of other stuff to do, give up some of their precious time for your writing?
It’s the same with creative prose. Short stories, poems, novels and scripts all need that first hook to capture the attention of their audience. There are lots of ways to do this, all tried and tested by authors far greater than me. The trick as a writer is to figure out which one suits your style and which one will give your creation the best first impression.
Katherine Roberts, author of Song Quest, begins her epic tale of a world where songs hold incredible power like this,
“The day everything changed, Singer Graia took Rialle’s class down the Five Thousand Steps to the west beach.”
It’s a beginning that draws attention by making the reader immediately curious. Why and how has everything changed? As well as letting them know that this story absolutely does not happen in the world we live in. (Five Thousand Steps and no lift? How barbaric!)
One of my favourite short stories by Terry Pratchett called The Sea and Little Fishes, set in the Discworld, starts with this short line,
“Trouble began, and not for the first time, with an apple.”
To anyone even remotely familiar with Pratchett’s sense of humour, that simple first sentence will already have them smiling. It’s leaving us asking questions (What apple? Who’s it about to hit in the head this time?) as well as inviting us to share in a joke. It’s making a connection.
In a much older piece, Inferno, Dante also endeavoured to draw us in but he used a far more dark and mysterious tone,
“Halfway through our trek in life
I found myself in this dark wood,
miles away from the right road.”
The beginning of the poem was as much a warning to the audience as an invitation to keep reading. In those few words there is already a sense of dread – to those who read it literally, a dark wood will bring memories of many grim horror films. To those who choose to read beyond the first layer, the implication of middle age anxieties and a doubt of life choices soon become apparent.
Edgar Allan Poe was also a master of using a more subtle but sinister tone to hook his readers. One of his well-known horror shorts, William Wilson, begins,
“Let me call myself, for the present, William Wilson.”
Why would the narrator want us to call him by a name not his own? What does he have to hide?
I always have trouble with my first line. It’s never as good as it could be (a fact of which Ben is always happy to point out). I wrote a short story about a little countryside village once. In it, its inhabitants all accidentally sold their souls to the devil for the promise of a £1 bag of Thorntons chocolate. It was inspired by those marketing questionnaires you get through your letterbox sometimes (give us all your personal information for research purposes and we’ll give you some sweets! Oh, and a lifetimes worth of junk mail). It’s a trick I’ve had to save several family members from, but I digress…
This was my first line,
“It was a bright sunny Monday morning, which was nice because no one had been expecting that.”
What do you think? And how about your first lines, are they the grand eye-catching portal into the realm of your fiction you’d like? What questions do they leave us asking? Are they dark and daunting, or bright and familiar? Go have a look!