The first line is important. The first line of this blog post wasn’t special, granted, but in general the first line is important. The Guardian listed their top ten opening lines from literature in this blog, and it’s hard to disagree with any of them, but my own personal favourite is from Iain Banks’ The Crow Road: “It was the day my grandmother exploded”. What a line. It sets the reader wondering what has happened, it gives us a clear voice for the narrator and it sets us firmly in time and space. This is a specific scene, on a particular day, and it is of importance to this character and to our understanding of him. Perfect.
On Saturday 21st June 2014, I’ll be at the Omega Centre in Portsmouth to talk to WEA workshop participants about the importance of Openings. We’ll talk about the possibilities for an opening line containing a plot point – along the lines of either ‘What will happen?’ or ‘What has happened?’ – and a strong sense of character and point-of-view. It is your first chance to engage the reader and, as they say, first impressions count.
In sitting down to write this blog post, I looked back through my notebook at the most-recent ‘new’ piece of writing I’ve done. It’s a short story. That is, it might end up being a short story. And it begins… wait for it… ‘Did you tell him yet?’
Good, right? This single line of dialogue immediately and simply sets up that we’re in a conversation, so there are two characters in play, and that there is a secret or significant piece of news that one of them is avoiding telling to a third party but, crucially, that the questioner also knows this secret. Things are happening here – it’s catapulting the reader (and the writer, I should add) into the heart of the story. For the rest of the day’s writing, I was trying to answer the question ‘What is it the secret that he’s holding back?’
Opening lines, then, don’t need to contain sweeping overviews of historical context or setting – like a Dickens novel – or give us a precise physical description of the protagonist. Instead, we’re often drawn in by first sentences that make it apparent that we’ve joined an already unfolding scene – in media res – or where the reader is asked to question how a character arrived at this point or, conversely, how they could possibly extricate ourselves from this situation. And if it has a quirky detail – an exploding grandmother – to pique the interest, then so much the better.
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