I think almost every author will agree with me when I say that first lines can be the hardest thing to write. I can’t count how many times I’ve wanted to start a story, known what I wanted to say, and just stared at the empty document because I couldn’t figure out how to begin.
Unfortunately, first lines are also vital. A brilliant first line hooks the reader, leaving them wanting more. An okay first line at least leads them to read the second, hopefully the third… and so on.
I believe that pressure is one of the things that leads to the trouble of coming up with the first line. We look at brilliant first lines from famous books, and feel self-conscious, trying to come up with one just as good.
Honestly, I think some first lines are considered good because of what story they are from. Take the opening line of ‘Moby Dick’, “Call me Ishmael.” Definitely iconic, but I think that ‘Moby Dick’ made the line iconic, rather than the line making ‘Moby Dick’ a classic. Other stories, the first line is undeniably good. I remember reading a book where the first page left me wishing I had written it. Ironically enough, I still haven’t finished reading the book, meaning a great opening is not the end all and be all of catching a reader’s attention.
What makes a good first line? The ideal first line gives a small sense of situation, place, and/or character, while raising questions in the reader. The first line must make the reader want to read the second. Modern readers don’t have the patience to read a few chapters before the story gets good. You have to have them by the end of the first page.
Your story doesn’t have to start with a bang. No one has to get shot, or murdered. Nothing has to be stolen. The ancient gods don’t have to rise up against mortals or the space shuttles flee a dying earth on the first page. You can start with that, if that’s how the story demands to be written. But there are a few caveats.
When you write a story, you are entering in an implied contract with the reader. You are telling the reader that your story is worth the money spent buying it, and the time spent reading it. To be fair, you have to let your reader know what kind of story they are getting into as quickly as possible. A tender love story should not start with a brutal murder. A thriller romance on the other hand, can. However exciting your opening is, you have to top it later. A high tension opening should lead to a high tension book. Not that the tension won’t relax in places, but the tension should remain high and even increase. Other genres expect a slower build. Some romances, literary fiction, etc. won’t expect, or even want a high impact beginning. Fantasy and Sci-Fi are more versatile. Good stories of both genres have been written with high tension beginnings or lower tension beginnings.
Two, keep in mind that we don’t know these characters yet. Even if this is a series, consider that some readers may not have read any previous stories. This could be their introduction. Putting a character in danger only works so well if the reader hasn’t had time to care about them yet. No, putting them in danger won’t make a reader care. Yes, we all feel something when we see the baby stroller start to roll into traffic, but it won’t be nearly as much as we feel if you show us first the parents, who had struggled to have a child for years, and are so overjoyed to finally have one, even as they grieve that the doctors say they can never have another. That, and unless you are writing a very dark story, we all know that the baby will be fine. TV Tropes calls it ‘Infant Immortality’. (possible NSFW language). If you are writing a story that dark, I recommend letting the readers know before something happens to the baby.
Back to openings. With all this pressure, how do we ever begin? Well, one exercise I enjoy doing is to open a blank document and writing ten sentences that could begin a story. Don’t hold back, don’t censure yourself. Don’t even worry if they don’t make sense. Don’t limit your genre either. It’s actually surprising the way a story can twist. The same sentence can lead to a comedy, a tragedy, or even more.
After I’ve written my sentences, I like to pick one and see what kind of story it leads to. Sometimes I find that my first sentence doesn’t remain my first sentence, and that’s fine too. Others, I haven’t written, but I hope to someday because I really want to know where they go.
One sentence I came up with was I don’t bleed anymore. I’ve written a story with that, almost two. The first version, which I enjoyed, was a rather pulpy style monologue of a woman transformed into something who was confronting her killer. The first paragraph went like this:
I don’t bleed anymore. Never thought I would miss it either. I do though. Not so much the blood itself. But what it means. When I bled, I was human. I breathed. I felt pain. I don’t do those things anymore. I don’t know what I am, either.
Personally, I think that’s a decent opening. Possibly better than the opening in the second draft, which focused more on a man who woke up in the middle of the night to find something that accused him of killing her. The first paragraph went like this:
Jacob Reaves woke up and stared at the ceiling through bleary eyes. It was a few minutes before he was able to think past the headache, and nasty taste in his mouth to realize the slightly familiar ceiling wasn’t his bedroom ceiling. Shuttering his eyes, he reached out with a leg. Yup, he’d passed out on the couch. Again.
Maybe you think the second opening is better, I don’t know. Actually, I would love to know which opening you prefer. So, why did I change it? Because I believe the second version of the story is better. The reader finds out more about the characters for one. Not everything is left to the reader’s imagination. That said, I am still fond of the first version. Perhaps someday I’ll put together a collection of short stories and include it as a bonus.
Other sentences I haven’t done anything with, but am curious to see what will happen. This is the story of how I drove to work and ended up three states away with an angry possum in the back seat. Or how about: I decided to quit chocolate the day the emus robbed the store. Personally, I really want to know how those are connected. Then there’s Helios bridled his horses, wondering again if it was time to retire. I don’t think that’s a retelling of the formation of the Milky Way, but I suppose it might be.
There are others, but that’s not the point. The point is that this exercise can give you a starting point. A way to play creatively. This exercise can also be done as a group. Maybe have everyone write three to five sentences and pass them to someone else. That person has to pick one and use it as a starting point for a story.
Most of all, remember that with writing, anything can change up until it’s published. Just start. You can come up with the perfect gem later.