Hold On, Let Me Stop Weeping and Write About My Favorite First Lines
Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn't fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in summer.
--A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
I am a coward.
--Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein
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 Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
Oh! How! I! Love! First! Lines!
When I was searching through my favorite books, trying to come up with my favorite first lines, it was next to impossible to keep myself from plunking down on the floor and just reading the whole book cover to cover.
That’s the wonderful thing about great first lines: they’re like magical tunnels that lead you straight into fantastic worlds that you never want leave, and really great first lines—the ones that are pretty much tattooed on your heart—are like warm smiles from old friends, inviting you to come on in and stay a while.
I’m not sure what it is about great first lines, except that I can remember exactly where I was the very first time I read each and every one. I started A Tree Grows in Brooklyn the summer before 7th grade, sitting in my parents’ car coming home from the bookstore where I’d just picked up my summer reading.
Code Name Verity I read in my apartment only a year and a half ago, when I was a judge for the Cybils, and as soon as I got to that first line, I got shivers.
And Harry Potter? Like a lot of readers, I read those first pages when I was in middle school, in bed, and I had no idea at the time that I was about to start a wonderful, years-spanning, life-changing journey.
Because those first lines are the beginning of journeys, the first steps of new experiences, and they’re hard to forget. Every one of those lines did what, in my opinion, first lines are supposed to do: they made me want to read more. It is such a simple thing, but it can be so tricky to pull off.
How do you give the flavor of a world, of a narrative, of the kind of story you’re trying to tell, in just a handful of words? How do you do it in a way that’s not sensational or out-of-place or show-offy, but natural? How do you drop a reader into the life of your character without it feeling jarring or strange or off-putting or boring? I’m not sure. It’s one of the things I think a lot about, as a writer, and it’s something I work very hard on: how to craft something that is beautiful and memorable and inviting and weird and wonderful and lovely. It’s not easy, but I’m working on it.
Here’s the first line from SALT & STORM, which I wrote and rewrote for months before finally realizing it was just how I wanted to start my story:
Despite my mother’s best efforts, I never forgot the day my grandmother taught me how to tie the winds.
And that’s it! I hope you like it, and I hope it makes you ask that wonderful question: “What comes next?”
Kendall Kulper is the author of SALT & STORM, to be published September 23, 2014 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. You can connect with her at Twitter or Facebook and learn more about her and SALT & STORM at her website.