What Goes into a Killer First Line? And How to Craft Your Own!
Guest Post by Desiree Villena
You’ve meticulously outlined a plot, researched the concept, even started thinking about how you might go about publishing your book — now you have to actually put pen to paper and write the first sentence. This should be as simple as putting one foot in front of the other, right?
Alas, it’s rarely such. But if this is the moment you’ve found yourself lost for words, you’re definitely not alone!
Great first lines come in many shapes and sizes, depending on variables like genre, aim, and the events of your opening scene. Rather than giving a one-size-fits-all approach, I’d like to analyze the art of the opener with a few examples, so that you can decide upon the most slick and stylish opening line for your story.
Option #1: Establish a simple fact or event
Sometimes, less is more. Rather than conjuring up something dramatic and unforgettable, sometimes your best option is getting something — anything — down on paper! Opening a scene in the clearest way possible establishes narrative directness, rather than appearing convoluted and overwrought. For an example of an opener that’s both attention-grabbing and fact-based, let’s look at Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend:
“This morning Rino telephoned. I thought he wanted money again and I was ready to say no.”
Here, Ferrante states an event that has occurred and explains it in simple terms. In the first part of this opener, we learn of the event: a conversation, which we soon find out is between an elderly lady and a young man, about a woman who has suddenly gone missing. In the second part, we get a sense of the interesting dynamic between the two, via the protagonist’s assumption over what the call is about. Simple, yet highly effective.
Option #2: Jump into the action
Forget what you were taught at school — starting with exposition is not a hard-and-fast rule when it comes to kicking off your story. In fact, many story structures advocate for cutting straight to the action to establish pace, intrigue, and excitement early on. It also allows for more sophisticated incorporation of character development and backstory as the plot develops.
Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You is a great example of establishing the crunch point of a story in the opener:
“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”
This line is short, sparse, and shocking. The reader immediately understands the crisis upon which the story will likely hinge. It doesn’t waste any time in grabbing the reader’s attention and setting the stage for the mystery that is about to unfold.
Option #3: Set the mood with something literary
That said, a little bit of exposition can be a more appropriate way to begin your story — particularly if it’s a slowburn or a more lighthearted form of fiction, like a romance or a slice-of-life drama. This can be done through the use of a literary device, like a simile or metaphor, or a detailed description of a place or a character.
For example, John Kennedy Tooles’ A Confederacy of Dunces starts with a physical description of Ignatius J. Reilly, Toole’s unpleasant, flatulent, work-shy protagonist:
“A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head.”
This opening instantly establishes the humorous tone of this cult classic, and shows Reilly to be a character with silly and somewhat foolish dimensions. It also figures as a more subtle illustration of the general tone of the story — comical yet description-heavy.
To use a metaphor of my own, this approach might be considered a dimming of the stage lights, rather than setting up the props! Illustrative, expressive writing with a touch of symbolism effectively establishes the ambience of a scene and allows for a gentle build up to the action.
Option #4: Impart some thoughtful philosophy
Some of the most memorable lines in fiction take a more worldly approach. This will require more expansive thinking than the other three tactics — but, when done well, can imbue your writing with an air of authority and significance that goes beyond the relaying of a series of events. L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between is a classic, oft-cited example of this type of opener:
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
In this case, Hartley alludes to the regret-tinged tale of his elderly protagonist, Leo, concerning a fateful visit to the country estate of his childhood friend Marcus. Rather than expressing a point of action, this kind of opening steps back from the plot and expresses a sentiment that resonates with the narrative arc of the story. If done well, this can be a stylish and thoughtful way to foreshadow the morale of your story, affirm a particular tone, and impart some wisdom onto your readers. Creative and classy.
If you’re still stumped, fear not! You can start writing your book or story at whichever point you feel is most clarified in your mind — beginning, middle, or end. As long as you keep plugging away, you’re bound to come up with something sooner or later!
The author of this guest post, Desiree Villena, is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories.