I’ve been a subscriber of Poets & Writers magazine for almost a decade now. It never fails to deliver and has been a resource I’ve returned to time and time again. One of the features I enjoy most is called “Page One,” where the first lines of up and coming books and collections are highlighted.
Here are a few favorites from the January/February issue:
“When I was a girl I would sneak down the hall late at night once my parents were asleep.” From Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro (Knopf, January 2019).
“You deserve your beautiful life.” From Loves You by Sarah Gambito (Persea Books, January 2019).
The reason I love this feature so much is because it reminds one how important those first lines are when it comes to building trust between reader and writer. A reader wants to be drawn into the story, to be given a reason to care either about the character or what is to happen next. A reader also wants to be entertained and perhaps, be able to escape the real world, even if just for a little while. As writers, hopefully, we’re able to deliver on all accounts.
Obviously, there are a myriad of ways one can open a story. You can:
Set the Mood
Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night.—from “How to be an Other Woman” by Lorrie Moore, Self-Help: Stories, Vintage Contemporaries, 1985.
Introduce a Character
This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.—from “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver, Collected Stories, Library Classics, 2009.
Have a Conversation
“Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” she said. “Make it useless stuff or skip it.”—from “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel, The Collected Stories, Scribner, 2007.
Ask a Question
How could a grown man with any self-respect sit in a Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory at eleven o’clock in the morning and eat a hot fudge sundae with mint chip ice cream, hold the nuts?—from “Nerves” by Ann Packer, Mendocino and Other Stories, Vintage Contemporaries, 1994.
Make a Statement
I know when people will die.—from “Wait Till You See Me Dance” by Deb Olin Unferth, New American Stories, ed. Ben Marcus, Vintage Contemporaries, 2015.
The girls were searching Arleen’s room and had just come upon her journal.—from “The Girls” by Joy Williams, The Visiting Privilege, Vintage Contemporaries, 2015.
Here is a snake with a girl in his mouth.—from “Passengers, Remain Calm” by Dan Chaon, Among the Missing, Random House, 2001.
No matter how you choose to begin, the opening ought to pique the reader’s curiosity and propel the story forward. Read the examples above again. Ask yourself whether they pass muster. Snake with a girl in its mouth? Curious? Heck, yeah. Propel the story forward? Definitely. You get the picture.
Author Colum McCann wrote an article in the Guardian back in May 2017 titled, “So you Want to be a Writer? Essential Tips for Novelists.” He cautions writers not to stuff too much into the first line and/or page, that one ought to consider the opening a doorway. He says, “Once you get your readers over the threshold, you can show them around the rest of the house.” Makes sense, don’t you think? Get in, but let the story unfold in it’s own time.
One last thought. Remember you don’t have to perfect the first line before you dive into writing your story draft. Sometimes it takes a while for things to gel enough before one discovers the best way to invite the reader in. All I can say is trust the process. It will come.
Do you have a favorite first line? Feel free to leave a comment below and tell us why it resonates with you.