A few weeks ago, I interviewed Andrew Pyper, author of The Homecoming, for a session at my local library, and while doing my preparation for that interview I came across an article he’d written for the Globe & Mail in 2012, called Crafting the Novel’s Crucial First Line.
Here’s an excerpt:
“no writerly preoccupation is more universally shared – or has been the cause of more agonized hours staring at the blank page – than the First Line…
How we begin a book is widely considered to be a matter so crucial, so decisive in determining whether a book soars or stalls, so elusive and mysterious, it's often spoken of in terms closer to spell-casting than sentence making…
There are no rules as to how to do it, other than one. A first line cannot, under any circumstances, be dull.”
I’m a sucker for a good first sentence.
I still remember the first sentence of Donna Thorland’s The Rebel Pirate, which I was lucky enough to read in galley proofs, before it was even published: “The gold was Spanish, the chest was French, the ship was American, and the captain was dead.” (And I was hooked).
When ideas start to swirl, I wait for that first sentence to take shape, because it always does—and stubbornly.
One sentence that refused to let me go was this: “I lost my only sister in the last days of September.” Which was truth, and one that seemed to painful then for me to even think of using as the springboard for a novel. But that one line kept returning to me, in a voice that wasn’t mine, so in the end I simply changed the month—September to November—and it was no longer my loss then, but that of Eva Ward, my heroine.And so began my journey through The Rose Garden.
The novel that I’m writing now began with a first sentence that rose up out of my research in a voice I hadn’t been expecting, telling me, “I was a younger man when I first met her.” So I’m on that journey now.
For me, it’s always a thrilling moment when that first sentence forms in my mind, because that’s the moment when I truly know I have a book—not just a gathering of thoughts and plot ideas, but a book I can begin to write.
So, fellow Wenches, how do YOU find your first sentences? Do they come easily, or are they difficult? And are they truly the first thing you write? Do you have any favorites among the first sentences you've written over the years?
I don't consider myself particularly good at first lines, and yes, they do get whapped around and polished and changed. There are a couple I rather like. In Shattered Rainbows, the first line is "She needed a husband, and she needed one fast." (For suitably convoluted reasons, of course!)
I also liked the first line of my one Western novella, Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: "He was going to be hanged on Tuesday." Nicely to the point, I thought. As for my other first lines—I can't remember any that are particularly interesting!
In my own somewhat haphazard writing way, I don’t even try to lay down my first sentence first. How could I? I don’t know the characters yet. I may not know the story. I keep plugging away at the opening, twiddling with it, poking it, dissatisfied. Sometimes that first line is the last thing I tack down.
I want the first line to connect strongly with the rest of the story. It should be intriguing and interesting. It should pull the reader into the “now” moment of Important Stuff Happening. And it’s nice if it's also just chock full of the crunchy taste of the protagonist.
That’s a lot to ask of a little flock of words, isn’t it?
I have a couple first lines that please me . . .
"She was willing to die, of course, but she had not planned to do it so soon, or in such a prolonged and uncomfortable fashion, or at the hands of her own countrymen." (Spymaster’s Lady)
"She slid out of sleep and knew there was a man in her room." (Beauty Like the Night)
Finding the right opening can be luck or struggle. With some of my books, the first line pops in early when the ideas start bubbling, and sometimes those feel just right and stick around with minimal change. With other books, I’ll come up with one opening after another, entry points, different angles, doors to the story. Then I have to choose, and I’m not great with choices. I rewrite and rethink, but if it just doesn’t come together, I know it’s time to step back and reconsider the best way into the story, and the right character POV.
“Wild as blackberries she was, sweet and dark and unruly, and she would never be his.” – The Sword Maiden
I scribbled that on a legal pad as the opening for Chapter One. Later, filling out the backstory, I wrote a prologue. But for me, the blackberry line is still the origin point for the story and the characters. The second line also popped in with it: “Lachlan MacKerron knew it, had always known it.” With those two sentences, my characters and their starting relationship appeared, and I set off to figure out the rest.
Here's another line that appeared early. I kept it throughout research, writing, and much angsty revision:
“Snowflakes dazzle against the evening sky, and fall gentle around this stark tower.” – Lady Macbeth
I scribbled that while researching the early idea—and right away it told me that the story, if I really was going to take on that iconic character, needed to be in first person. I resisted, tried writing in third person, as I was used to doing. But I kept going back to that first line and a direct perspective, even using present tense for the first and last chapters. It just worked best. Writing Lady M was one hurdle and discovery after another, and that first line came through loud and clear, and I learned a lot.
Then there are considerations of style, and hooks, what pulls a reader in and catches their interest, what the opening line tells the reader about what lies ahead. First lines are better kept fresh and lightly edited, and if a writer is lucky, they come in easily and clearly and retain that freshness. We’re not always that lucky. I’ve deleted more than my fair share of convoluted attempts to find the door to a story!
I’ve been writing since I was a kid in elementary school. I’ve been aware of the importance of a first sentence for decades. And yet my Muse still insists on creating “first scenes.” I may not even have a story or characters, but that first scene is what drives me to write a story. The first sentence? Well, it changes every time I edit the work in progress. I just really don’t see the point of pouring all my energy into one line as long as that first paragraph grabs a reader and drags them into the book.
As a case in point, one of my best-selling books is Wicked Wyckerly. Now the first scene in that book actually changed drastically from the time I thought of the book until I was ready to write it down. But once I was ready to write it, I just couldn’t do a lot more to those first few sentences then appeared when I finally wrote them:
"John Fitzhugh Wyckerly, newly styled seventh Earl of Danecroft, tilted back his late father’s wooden office chair and plopped his muddy boots on a towering stack of yellowed invoices. From that position, he contemplated the gun collection on the far wall, left to him by his freshly departed brother.
If guns were the solution to his problems, he had a vast array from which to choose."
I hope that this small bit gives the book and hero a voice, insight into the depth of his dilemma, and his attitude. That works for this book, because it’s voice and hero-driven. Whether or not the line or the story comes first, I can’t tell you!
Occasionally a first line will just come and spark the rest of the scene and story. That's a blessing when it happens, and at times it feels as though the story almost writes itself. But my opening lines rarely come easily. I'm usually too busy trying to strike the right note for the first scene, to get the angle right so the story takes off. I'll often write several first scenes, and even then I'll often go back and write a different beginning or tweak the original one once I've got a fair bit of the story written, and know who my characters are and where the story is going and know what I want the beginning to set up.
As well, I often have a prologue and the tone of that is usually darker and quite different from the opening of the actual story. The prologue is often an incident that takes place before the main story, and sparks the story — the "call to reluctant adventure" so to speak.
For instance the prologue of The Perfect Waltz begins with an incident that convinces the hero that he needs a wife to handle his difficult little sisters.
His little sister was about to plummett to her death on the cold gray cobblestones at his feet!
But chapter one starts:.
"But she's got no bosoms! You can't marry a woman with no bosoms."
And when I wrote To Catch A Bride, which was set largely in Regency-era Egypt, my editor was worried about the setting and wanted me to start the story in England. (They also used a bland, generic cover for the same reason, so it wouldn't signal "Egypt".)
So the prologue opens with:
A whip cracked, shattering the stillness of the icy landscape.
But chapter one begins:
There he is, the man I told you of," Ali said, pointing with a small grubby finger. "They say his name is Rameses. They say he has come from England to buy a girl and he will pay in gold."
I love a memorable first sentence (I’ll allow artistic license to stretch it to two) . . . one of my all time favorites is Deanna Raybourn’s, from her first book, Silent in the Grave: “To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is nor entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching on the floor . . .”
Alas, I don’t seem to be nearly that clever. My first sentences usually seek to set an ambiance—I seem to be drawn into creating an atmosphere with that first sentence, especially in my mysteries, rather than having one of the protagonists grab the reader. Part of it has to do with the fact that I usually start with a prologue, which creates the murder (or crime) that starts the characters on their journey.
For example, here’s the opening line of the prologue from Murder on Black Swan Lane: "A flicker of weak light skittered over the stone floor, followed by the soft scrape of steps and the whispered whoosh, whoosh of mist-dampened wool . . .” Chapter One begins: "A plume of steam rose from the bubbling crucible, the curl of silvery vapor floating ghost-like against the shadowed wood paneling before dissolving into the darkness. After consulting his pocket watch, the Earl of Wrexford scribbled a few more notations in his ledger, the scratch of his pen punctuated by the soft pop, pop, pop of colorless chemicals . . .”
I wish I could do a drop-dead opening line, but my writing brain seems to see a book start in a quieter way. But then, my current WIP (the fourth Wrexford and Sloane mystery) begins with a very simple opening line: “Halloo?”