Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Agony and Ecstasy of First Lines by Kat Ross

So you've just spent weeks, maybe months or years, coming up with a brilliant storyline, unforgettable characters and profound, life-altering themes involving love or death or loyalty or faith or intergalactic dry humping or whatever. A little voice in your head has started to whisper that there's only so much more you can do with this thing in theory. You've ignored it for a while, thinking not quite yet. I still have to figure out the motivation of that second cousin's dog walker's gynecologist. The voice becomes more insistent. Perhaps a deadline that seemed laughably distant a few months ago is now looming over you like Boris Karloff in his Frankenstein shoes.

The moment of truth has arrived.

You sit down at your computer. Yes, you can feel it. This will be the best book you have ever written. The best book that ever has been written in all of human history. You watch that little cursor blinking against a field of unbroken white. Blink. Blink. Blink. It's mesmerizing, really. And a funny thing happens. The white starts to grow until it's the size of the Siberian tundra. Your fingers, resting lightly on the keyboard, start to sweat. You will them to move. To type something. Anything.

After about five minutes of this, you realize it's intolerable that your spice rack is not properly alphabetized and decide to rectify the situation immediately. Plus the cobwebs in that dark corner of the basement that you haven't visited since the Clinton administration? Again: intolerable.

And so it goes until you muster the courage to sit back down and just get over yourself. Because it's not really writer's block (no, you can look forward to that happening at some point later down the line). It's plain cold feet.

So what makes a great first line? There are probably as many answers to that as there are readers of fiction. The only common denominator is that you must keep going. Personally, I like funny and/or kind of scary. Here's one with elements of both:

"The gunman is useless. I know it. He knows it. The whole bank knows it. Even my best mate, Marvin, knows it, and he's more useless than the gunman. The worst part about the whole thing is that Marv's car is standing outside in a fifteen-minute parking zone. We're all facedown on the floor, and the car's only got a few minutes left on it."

That's from I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak.

Or this dead simple but shivery opener from Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book:

"There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife."

Great first lines sometimes start at the end of the story and work backwards, like this one from Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole:

"You never hear about a sportsman losing his sense of  smell in a tragic accident, and for good reason; in order for the universe to teach excruciating lessons that we are unable to apply in later life, the sportsman must lose his legs, the philosopher his mind, the painter his eyes, the musician his ears, the chef his tongue. My lesson? I have lost my freedom, and found myself in this strange prison, where the trickiest adjustment, other than getting used to not having anything in my pockets and being treated like a dog that pissed in a sacred temple, is the boredom."

Some tell you right up front what you're in for, no beating around the bush:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

Bingo! Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Or they take you to far-off lands you never expected to visit:

"The place generally referred to as Hell but also known variously as Hades, the Kingdom of Fire, Old Nick's Place, and assorted other names designed to indicate that this is not somewhere in which you might want to spend eternity, let alone a short vacation, was in a state of turmoil."

John (love him SO much) Connolly, The Infernals.

The first book I wrote (which didn't sell) was a middle-grade/YA fantasy about a girl math prodigy who gets sucked into a parallel world populated by obsolete deities and assorted mythological beasties. The original opening line: "The demigod Thoth was having a lousy day." My agent had lots of very good suggestions for the redraft, and one of them was that I get rid of that line because it wasn't scary enough. So I cut it, despite howls of outrage from one of my favorite beta readers who still, years later, berates me for caving in because she loved that line harder than any other line in the entire book. I did too, actually, and intend to reinstate it if we ever try to sell the manuscript again (I hope you're not reading this, Jeff, because I plan to slip it back in without telling you).

Moving on. I'm compelled to round this out with Oscar Wilde, even though it's not an opening line, but just because. Oscar Wilde. You know.


"One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing."


  1. I do like the humor in I Am the Messenger and thought the Graveyard Book had the perfect first line. Whenever I go to the library or book store, I like to read first lines. See what grabs me and what doesn't. =)

  2. First lines are so important! Great post!

  3. Great post - was hoping you'd end with YOUR first line. :) Wonderful sampling of first lines though!