First Lines

The first line of your story is important, but not so crucial that you need to obsess about it. I mean, nobody’s going to stop there, even if it’s not very good. A paragraph or so later, if it’s still not good, they might lose interest. I have heard it said that someone judging something is going to give it 10 seconds. But you have at least 10 seconds. So don’t spend hours and hours coming up with a great first line–trust all your writing. Nothing stands or falls on a single line.

That said, there are some great first lines out there! Here are some examples. These are so unusual and interesting that they made me sit back and go ‘wow’… (in effect, pulling me out of the story before I even get in, but that’s all right and probably wouldn’t happen to a regular reader). I’m skipping the classics, by the way, the ones everybody knows. These are just ones that impacted me recently.

Connie Willis isn’t in this list, because I couldn’t find any severely awesome first lines. It’s by the second line that she starts kicking your ass. But she definitely deserves mention. Every single first paragraph of everything she’s written would be in here if it were a first-paragraph article.

“Each ant emerged from the skull bearing an infinitesimal portion of brain.” – Kahawa, by Donald Westlake – I ended up not finishing this book; it had too many moments where he just said, in effect, “Here, I did the research, now you get to look at it too.” I confess I like his comedy better. But that’s a great first line.

“In the crypt of the Abbey Church at Hallowdene, the monks were boiling their Bishop.” – The Bone-Pedlar, by Sylvian Hamilton – I’ve never found anything else by Hamilton, but this was a great first line and really an enjoyable book.

“How could I have died and gone to hell without noticing the transition?” – Borders of Infinity, by Lois McMaster Bujold – Well, she’s on my list of top three, so I needn’t tell you whether I finished the book. More please.

“The sky was full of the gray scum of a soup kettle on the boil.” – The Grey Horse, by RA MacAvoy – An excellent one-off by this author, who is just not prolific enough.

“It was not that there were no warnings, but for a long time no one believed.” – Bride of the Rat God, by Barbara Hambly – That has to be one of the best titles out there, too. Great book, a one-off by this mostly series author, who is a great favorite of mine.

“Lila Braun had been living with Farrell for three weeks before he found out she was a werewolf.” – Lila the Werewolf, by Peter Beagle – Classic, just classic.

“No live organism can continue to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.” – The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson – possibly the only true horror story I’ve ever read–meaning, the only one that made me screech and throw the book. I picked it up again. She’s an amazing writer.

And how about some of my own? These are not competition for the above in any way. But I thought they were some of my favorite first lines from my own stuff. Not all these pieces are finished, either.

“Arising from black dreams, I fairly flung myself out of my side of the bed, tripping over a trailing edge of blanket.” – from Homecoming

“In the city, it’s never really dark.” – from Nine Knocks

“Just then the lights flickered, the computer screen went dark, and a half-hour’s work collapsed without a blip.” – from an untitled piece… I thought it was fun to start a story with ‘just then…’

“Near dawn, a girl headed for home, flitting through sleeping middle-class houses like a ghost.” – a group project with my writer’s group

Oh, I know what… how about some really BAD first lines I’ve written? I consider these to be awful, meaning not just ordinary or unremarkable, but truly bad.

“Deep within itself, at the core of the continent, unseen by the bustling civilization outside, the crystal thrummed and flickered and wept to itself.” – Deep within itself? Huh? and I repeated ‘itself’! Bad writer! No cookie!

“She knocked on my door just as I was giving final instructions to the babysitter, a spectacular feat of timing when you consider she’d come all the way from Texas.” – from Cathouse, an actually not all that bad short erotica piece I wrote in the 90s. It’s a bad first line though. Can’t tell if I’m talking about the babysitter, or what.

“Allie lay back, thinking devoutly up at the empty ceiling.” – from Shining Spirit, also from the 90s. Ugh. Thinking devoutly?

“A magical being called the World Walker came to the earth one day on its ramblings.” This was designed to be a children’s story. I cringe.

“The Castle in the Center of the World sat all alone on a small island in the middle of a nearly circular lake, in the center of the only continent on the World Ocean.” – from Sea Sword, the first fantasy novel I wrote that even deserved the name. This is fairly um… indicative of the quality. Yeek.

Well, this has been highly educational. What great or awful first lines have you written, or read?


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