We hear all the time how important first lines are in hooking a reader’s attention. First lines must provoke curiosity, create anticipation, and move seamlessly into the sentences that follow. That’s not what I want to focus on today, but if you’re interested in the elements of good first lines, check out the following posts:
Instead, I’m more interested in what the “right” first line gives to the writer.
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Recently I found myself having trouble digging in to a short story I’ve been trying to write. I have a premise, characters, conflict, and even a rough idea for the plot. Sounds like I should be having no problem writing the story, right? Wrong.
I’ve started and stopped working on the story over the past few months, picking it up only to set it back down again. For a while, I thought my troubles in executing were because I hadn’t let the story simmer in my mind long enough.
Then I realized the real reason. My opening scene—particularly my opening line—wasn’t strong enough to hang the rest of the story on.
In the drafting stage, I don’t care about hooking readers. My only concern is getting to “the end”. And while I know what the shape of this story should be, my starting point is very fuzzy. Hence my troubles.
Starting points are a fundamental aspect of the architecture of a story. Everything that comes after the beginning cannot exist in the reader’s mind without the context the start of the story creates. Similarly, as a writer, each sentence I write affects the trajectory of the story. Where I choose to begin can have huge ramifications on what follows.
Even though I’d say 90% of the time I rewrite my first lines, I still need one—regardless of how imperfect—to help me write my story.
So what makes for a strong first line that facilitates the writer’s drafting process?
- It should give you an organizational framework that dictates how you tell the story.
- It should pose a question that you as a writer want to answer.
- It must keep you writing.