Monday, April 5, 2010

That Damned First Line

We’ve all experienced it; you are reading a book that someone – perhaps a teacher or a good friend – has recommended to you, but even before the first paragraph has finished your eyes are already wandering down the page, looking for some line of dialogue to break the mundane description, hoping that the story will eventually get exciting. It doesn’t matter that the novel has discovered the universal truth of all humanity; if the writing is not engaging, if it does not grab your attention from the very beginning, you probably won’t read it.

This occurrence, unfortunately, also applies to our own writing. For anything you could ever write – an essay, a short story, a novel, your grandmother’s eulogy – the first paragraph must do everything in its power to force the reader to keep reading. The first sentence can thus be considered the most important sentence of your entire story, more important even than the final sentence. The first sentence must be engaging, but not overpowering; it must be simple, but not mundane. Ultimately, it must perk the interest of the reader and make them want to know more about your story and characters. By the first line they should be asking what Colonel Aureliano Buendía did to merit a firing squad and what was so significant about the discovering of ice with his father (Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude)*. Your first line needs to act as the swirling vortex that sucks your readers in and spits them out only after they’ve been imprisoned for a number of hours and the hunger pains have begun to set in (don’t lie; we all know what it is like to be abducted by a good book). Like the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth, everything else flows from your first sentence.

The trickiest part of this is that while there is so much weighing on the first line, your reader should never know. A common pitfall of many authors is attempting to accomplish too much in the first line, resulting in the reader being overwhelmed by a tactless pummel of information. Instead, the first line should be so smooth that one doesn’t have time to stop and think about what they’ve read; one just keeps reading. The first line doesn’t need to be about anything extraordinary; a casual statement will do just fine so long as the paragraph backs it up. Below is a perfect example of a bad first line that simply says too much:

Thanks to the adrenaline pumping through his veins Thomas couldn’t feel the bullet passing through his skin, though in his heart he knew that without care he would soon bleed out before getting a chance to see his lovely Josaline again, waiting all alone for him to return to the States at the end of his tour.

Just writing that sentence hurt! Don’t over exert yourself; give your story – and your readers – some room to breathe. Most of the time a simple statement will do more for your story than a poor attempt to astound the audience.

Ultimately, your first line should accomplish two things: it ought to grab the attention of your readers, and set the tone for the rest of the story. By tone, I mean the mood that you wish to begin the story with. If your story is about a single mom bathing her child, the mood will probably be more calm and lethargic than quick and suspenseful. Similarly, if you are writing about a funeral, the tone will probably not be the happiest. Think about where you want to go with your story and how your main character is feeling at the beginning of the scene, this will help you to establish the proper mood from the very beginning.  Whether you are writing a short story, a song, a novel, or even a term paper, the mood should be obvious throughout the story; and it all begins with that first line.

Many people fall into the misunderstanding that in order to grab the reader’s attention, they must begin the story with a good action-packed scene. DO NOT DO THIS. If done improperly (and more often than not it will be) it will only confuse the reader, to the point where they may not want to continue reading. Instead, if you have a great character, introduce him to the audience, or if you are confident that you can describe the setting without being a bore, do so. Both of these techniques will not only grab your reader’s attention, but they are also good ways to establish the proper mood. Once you have gotten the reader attached to your well-thought out character, the plot will fall in line behind him.

To recap, the first line must be simple, it must be engaging, and it must establish the mood for the rest of the story.  If you need some help, try to remember some of your favorite books and their first lines. Or, try browsing through this list of 100 best first lines as decided by the American Book Review.

Now, before you begin to agonize about how your first line is not the way you want it, remember that it is only one line, and can always be rewritten.

* The first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude reads: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”


  1. Wow, get out of my head! That first paragraph describes me to a T!