A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.
Writing that first line.
(Also: When Outlining Might Help.)
One’s first line(s) need not be plot specific, nor allude to any sort of inciting incident, but the opening of any story should be, must be, profound. Poignant. Riveting. Either in-your-face riveting or very subtly so. Teasing. Provocative. Your opening’s sole intent is to immediately immerse readers in whatever impending story you’re about to present. Personally, I often fool around with my opening, tweaking, nudging or even re-writing that damn sentence over and over, even after I’ve finished several drafts. And yet, somehow, I eventually find the perfect (for me) expression.
How important is your first line? Important enough to be Rule #2: Make your story’s first line enticing enough to immediately hook readers. (The only line as important is your story’s last line. So the same rule apply.)
I’ve gathered 25 fictional first lines (and corresponding 2nd lines, if appropriate) from previously published authors. I believe these openers grab readers exceptionally well. Most of these books were or are hugely successful, but widely vary in substance, tonality and mood. These intros provide the necessary allure (whether wit, pathos, humor, suspense or a teasing overview) to read on. Some will hint of an impending inciting incident. Others are far more opaque or elusive. So, in chronological order:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” — Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen. (1813)
“It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America, that the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered, before the adverse hosts could meet.” — The Last of the Mohicans. James Fenimore Cooper. (1826)
Charles Dickens’ 1859 classic, A Tale of Two Cities, is already (in)famous for its breathless prose, and while the book’s familiar first line would be torn apart by today’s editors (or at least separated into several distinct sentences), Dickens’ emotional perception of Victorian-era London helped launch the book into Wikipedia’s Top 5 Best-Selling Novels of All Time list.
. . . . 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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
H. G. Wells’ opener is rather amazing, given the book’s pub date. Unknown to readers, of course, but Orwell’s first line foreshadows his entire plot, and even hints at the book’s brilliant conclusion.
. . . .No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. — War of the Worlds. H. G. Wells. (1898)
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. — The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald. (1925)
Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm, as the Tarletin twins were. — Gone With The Wind. Margaret Mitchell. (1936)
In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit. — The Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien. (1937)
In the corner of a first class smoking carriage, Mr. Justice Wargrave, lately retired from the bench, puffed at a cigar and ran an interested eye through the political new in The Times. — And Then There Were None. Agatha Christie. (1939)
. . . . An interesting aside, the British version of Christie’s book was first titled Ten Little N – – – – – – . (Yup, the infamous N-word; and the title of a familiar children’s nursery rhyme at the time. The rhyme’s plot factored prominently into Christie’s story.) In America, the title was changed to Ten Little Indians and ultimately became known as And Then There Were None. The book remains one of the best-sellers of all time.
It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. 1984. George Orwell. (1948).
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. — The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger (1951)
It was a pleasure to burn. — Fahrenheit 451. Ray Bradbury. (1953)
The two transports had sneaked up from the south in the first graying flush of dawn, their cumbersome mass cutting smoothly through the water whose still greater mass bore them silently, themselves as gray as the dawn which camouflaged them. — The Thin Red Line. James Jones. (1962)
The Island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. — The Wizard of Earthsea. Ursula K. Le Guin. (1968)
All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. — Slaughterhouse-Five. Kurt Vonnegut. (1969)
When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon. — The Last Good Kiss. James Crumley. (1978)
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. — Neuromancer. William Gibson. (1984) This is the novel, btw, that coined the term Cyberspace.
The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming. — Glitz. Elmore Leonard. (1985)
Maybe I shouldn’t have given the guy who pumped my stomach my phone number, but who cares? My life is over anyway. — Postcards from the Edge. Carrie Fischer. (1987)
I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign. — The Bean Trees. Barbara Kingsolver. (1988)
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. — Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone. J.K. Rowling. (1997)
They shoot the white girl first. With the others, they take their time. — Paradise. Toni Morrison. (1998)
The creature watched and waited. — The Past is Never. Tiffany Quay Tyson (2006)
Micky and the naked blonde are giggling in the Jacuzzi. — On The Edge. Me! Me! This one’s mine! (2012) …because I’m not above a little self-promotion (and I really like the line!).
I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years. — The Good Lord Bird. James McBride. (2017)
We should have known the end was near. How could we not have known? — How Beautiful We Were. Imbolo Mbue. (2021)
So begin… but do so with forethought and with a profound sense of purpose, of teasing or mystifying or exciting the reader. And yet I’m aware that staring at a blank page, at glancing toward that distant finish line, some 300 or 400 pages in the future, can produce a wee bit of anxiety. Of uncertainty. The common, cliché-ish and yet ultimately sage advice is to begin at the beginning. Although I admit the adage isn’t entirely helpful. Where to begin is often a writer’s state of mind at any particular moment.
But take heart. The truth is that very few writers know exactly where the beginning begins. My best advice is, for the moment, don’t sweat it. Don’t sit for hours, or days, petrified into inertia by worrying about precision, fretting about perfection. Just begin writing where you think your story may begin. At the moment, you’re more or less groping around in the dark. And that’s normal.
…because at any point in time, you’re allowed to change your mind.
A dirty little secret is that many writers won’t know exactly where to begin until we’re midway or even fully through a draft or two. Only when we have a more complete understanding of our characters personalities and our story’s resolution can we fully determine the best starting point.
Me? Once I’m more fully aware of my characters’ intentions, I’ll revisit my first page with a keener eye and a more astute sense of purpose. I’ll sometimes add pages or delete pages until I come upon what feels right. Once I created an entire new first chapter that better represented the foreboding tenor of my story—so just know that options always exist. For the time being, don’t dwell. For the moment, you’re creating quantity (pages) over quality.
Where to Start: What Not to Worry About (Yet)
When you begin writing your book, your brain will most likely be aswirl with various sorts of panic or pandemonium. How do I…? What do I…? Where do I…? (For most
novice writers, this uncertainty is normal.) The key is not to worry about what’s going to happen 10 or 50 or 100 pages from now. You probably have a vague notion of where you’re heading—and perhaps you’ve only solidified a scene or two in your head. But we need only about one page at a time. This word. This sentence. So keep your head in the moment. Focus on one coherent thought at a time. (See Rule #8: Focus on the Now.)
Me? I love staring at that initial blank page, not a single thought yet written down and a cautious optimism building inside my head. I’m often without a clue as to where my opening few pages will take me. Certainly I have a few characters in mind and a potential inciting incident firmly established as well. (Refer again to Where to Start, Part 1.) My first two novels were crime thrillers, so I knew that nefarious intentions were afoot, and that my opening would contain a sense of dread, of dramatic urgency, and that I’d likely produce a dead body or two before the chapter ended.
But after that… no idea. While I’m a firm believer of outlining, I don’t begin outlining until I realize that I’ve lost any sense of definitive direction, or else I have two or three possible paths to explore before I find the best route forward. Instead of wasting time drafting (and possibly then deleting) another 25-50 pages, which can be time consuming, I begin to outline my possibilities. Even though I’m blissfully flying blind for those 40 or 50 pages, fueled by adrenaline, I know when to hit the brakes and stake stock.
While I’m aware that some (most?) writers abhor outlining — admittedly, it’s not the most creative part of writing a novel — I’ve found that outlining can be a crucial, necessary element of story telling. Basically, you’re creating a cheat-sheet for yourself; a roughly scribbled road map containing just enough info to remind you of where you’re going and why. But while outlining, you’re also free to explore a plethora of new What if…? concepts.
When & Why Outlining Might Help.
So let’s say we’re writing a love story that takes place in early 20th century Boston, at a time when immigrants were flooding the Atlantic seaboard states and seeking safe communities in an overcrowded, crime-infested city. Politicians were little more than crime bosses. Young Bobby, who’s second generation Irish, falls in love with Marie, who’s second-generation Italian. Their families live on the edge of that teetering, cultural dividing line between the Irish and Italian communities.
Our beginning is pretty standard fare. Bobby (18) meets Marie (17) at the corner apothecary/soda shoppe down the street. He flirts, she giggles and despite Bobby’s best intention to dismiss her, he begins fall in love. Despite Marie’s father’s (Joseph) warning about those ‘no-good, thievin’ micks, she’s smitten with Bobby as well. They begin to sneak away to the apothecary, or else meet at a little nearby duck pond, and talk away the long, summer afternoons. At one point Marie’s older brother, Vincente, catches sight of them holding hands. Vincente beats up Bobby, but that only reinforces his intention to marry Marie. Bobby’s older brother, Patrick, then beats up Vincente—their mothers bicker at the corner grocery, screaming in both Italian and Gaelic, and their fathers repeatedly threaten each other with bodily harm. Bobby’s father, Michael, demands that his son stay away from this greannach girl, and yet Bobby and Maria aren’t dissuaded. They secretly plot to run away together…maybe to California, if they can save enough pennies, nickels and dimes.
Okay, so let’s say we’ve written about 100 pages of dramatic, intense realism, building the foundation of our story, with fleshed-out characters and brooding relationships. It’s time for Bobby and Marie to make their move. Come midnight, they’ll sneak away to board that long awaited train to California.
But perhaps that’s as far we’ve visualized the story line. We’ve reached as far as our romantic daydream has taken us. All along we’ve assumed that Bobby and Marie would elope and leave their families behind—but we suddenly realize that, once they’ve boarded the train, we’re leaving most of our carefully orchestrated, dramatic roadblocks behind as well. Freeing Bobby and Maria to be themselves, and happy, will suck much of the raw emotion out of the story. Do we provide new dangers on their way to California, or keep them in Boston until we can complete a few more story arcs?
Basically….so now what?
Ah, the perfect time to outline any number of possible solutions. So after a number of false starts — ideas that, when outlining, are far easier easy to delete or alter than dumping 25 or 50 carefully drafted pages — we find a couple of worthy concepts. So here goes (Option A):
• Bobby’s adamant about eloping with Marie. Because Bobby’s big bro is wary of Bobby’s brash stupidity, he accompanies Bobby into Boston’s Little Italy to keep him safe.
• As they approach Marie’s house, they find her father, Joseph and her brother Vinnie, waiting for them in the shadows, holding baseball bats. ‘
• Brashly, Bobby declares his love for Marie and vowed that he won’t be deterred.
• In a rage, Vinnie takes a swing at Bobby, who ducks the blow.
• Paddy pulls a small revolver from his waste band and shoots Vinnie dead.
• Panicked, Bobby grabs Marie’s hand and pulls the sobbing girl away from the fray.
• Running from the madness, neither Bobby or Marie see Marie’s father kill Paddy with a blow to the head.
An Irish cop, by happenstance, sees Paddy go down, and shoots Marie’s father. No! Joseph will provide far more drama as a foil if he’s still alive!
• Meanwhile, Bobby and Marie find refuge in an unoccupied, dilapidated tenement home a block away. Bobby’s tries to comfort Marie — but the girl’s distraught about her brother’s death.
An indigent wino attacks Bobby, but Bobby knocks the old guy out with a punch. No! Keep the plot taut here. No need for non-specific violence. The scene is dramatic enough without the distraction.
• Marie tells Bobby she must return home in shame to comfort her parents and, sobbing hysterically, she tells Bobby she still loves him, but that her brother’s death means they can never find happiness together. She kisses him goodbye.
…and now we’ve given ourselves a new set of hurdles before the two lovers can board that train and flee to happily ever after. Note that when I outline, I will often make notes to myself, and/or cross out those ideas that don’t feel right and even include (in red) a brief rationale for my decision, should I wonder later why I found those scenes ineffective or unnecessary.
Or. . . .
But what if we’re not fully convinced about this new direction. Perhaps we’re still looking for other possibilities. The great thing about outlining: It’s quick and easy and, at this point, hardly definitive. Maybe we’re still thrilled about that train ride to California, and whatever obstacles that trek may provide. So what if…? (Option B):
• Bobby’s insisting upon eloping with Marie. Because Paddy is wary of his little brother’s brash stupidity, he accompanies Bobby into Little Italy to keep him safe.
• As they approach Marie’s house, they find
Marie’s father and her brother Vinnie waiting for them in the shadows, holding a baseball bat. ‘
• Brashly, Bobby declares his love for Marie and vowed that he won’t be deterred by Vinnie’s threats of violence.
• In a rage, Vinnie takes a swing at Bobby, who ducks the blow.
• Paddy knocks Vinnie unconscious with an uppercut to the chin. Bobby grabs Marie’s hand and the three of them hustle off to the train station.
• A moment later, Vinnie comes to. And aware of Bobby’s plan to flee to California, he follows them to the station.
• Paddy gives Bobby a wad of cash and they hug. Bobby and Marie board the train and wave goodbye.
• A moment later, Vinnie shows up. Seeing Paddy watching the train depart, he pulls a small pistol from his waist band and shoots Paddy dead. In the ensuing panic, Vincente makes his getaway.
• Vinnie returns home, explains that he saw Bobby and Marie board the train to California, but was a moment too late to stop them. (Does Vinnie tell his father he killed Bobby’s brother? Does he keep that a secret? Not sure yet!! Pros and cons of revealing the murder now???)
• Enraged, Joseph tells Vinnie that they’re going to California on the next train and bring Marie back home. (Will two train tickets cost Joseph his last cent? Will they have to revert to robbery to fund their journey westward?) Since Vinnie’s a murderer, do we want to make Joseph a full antagonist, or ultimately more sympathetic to Bobby’s plight? Meaning, might Joseph be redeemable? If so, probably not yet.
And thus, with relatively little effort, we now have two paths of forward momentum to choose from. Even with three or four variations outlined, eventually one will emerge as ouf best approach, and once we decide the most dramatic, exciting choice—we’re back on track and ready to draft another few scenes.
Oh, and one last option: If the spirit moves us, we can complete our outline — finish our story — before we begin drafting again. If we can discover a direct route from the train station to that final page, and outline the remainder of our book, we have a distinct advantage of having a complete roadmap between here and there. With a complete outline, we’re pretty much assured of how to proceed to the end of our tale. We’ll make far fewer wrong turns and blunders, and follow our map and that final destination: THE END.
Remember, an outline is simply a brief, short-hand list of what goes where. One need not add color or dialogue or innuendo. (We can if we like, but it’s not essential at this point.) We’re simply jotting down enough of our bared-bones, essential story-line to remind us of where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. And, if we’ve begun our story somewhere in the middle, we can outline backwards to our first chapters and eventually connect the dots as well. And then, when satisfied, continue outlining chronologically to the book’s ending.
Do note that I don’t consider outlining a Rule-worthy necessity. While I consider it a crucial writer’s tool, I still believe it’s a writer’s choice whether to outline or not. For many writers, it’s an ‘only as needed’ obligation, and many writers don’t outline at all. S’up to you. (But keep it in mind, the next time you find yourself stuck in the middle.)
CONTINUE to Part 3: Discovering your story’s core elements.