Read the First Chapter

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Tips #3 for Fiction Writers: That Great First Sentence

Tip #3  That Great First Sentence

By Peter Gilboy

“In retrospect I shouldn’t have freed the tiger.”

Jodi Picoult’s first line here, in Lone Wolf
has many of the traits of a great first sentence.

It is a surprise

It provides an image

It is humorous

It’s simple

It creates a mood

It teases

It may even encapsulate 

the entire story

She knows the darkest lie of all.
We all know that an opening line is important. It won't make the story great, but it will immediately introduce your reader to a problem, or a question, or a sticky thought that your reader can’t shake.

It quickly moves the reader inside your story.

Take a look at the first line of the work you’re presently writing. Which of the above traits does it have? Count them out.

It would be great of a computer could spit out a great line for us. But what computer could spit out this first line? 

“Lolita, light of my fire, fire of my loins.”

Yes, it’s Vladimir Nabakov’s, Lolita. It’s a sensual tease. It makes us want more. Computers can’t reach into us like that. Count how many of the above traits can be found there. I count six.

We can’t force a good first line. If it doesn’t come—wait.

Wait with enough creative tension and it’ll come; perhaps you’ll be in the bathtub or on a long walk; maybe in the midst of furious writing or a furious writer’s block.

First lines sometimes simply appear like that.

Here's one I like: 

"Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlins feet were placed in a tub of cement."   Live by Night  Dennis Lehane

It's Visual. It's Simple. It Creates a mood.  It ask a question- What happened?

A good first line may come to you as your writing the beginning part of your story, or the middle, or the even the end. We can’t always control when. Of course we can force a line out. But I’ll bet that a spontaneously derived line that surprises even the author will also surprise his or her readers.

What happens when the CIA
gets inside your mind?
 In some cases the first line might even come before any other word in the story has been written.  It may be a thought the author had, a sudden muse, some internal questioning that resulted in a single line that has the power to propel a story forward; perhaps even a story the author hadn’t planned at all.

Maybe that’s what happened to Alice Walker in the 
first line of her well-known novel, The Color Purple.

“You better not tell nobody but God.”

Here’s a first line that has stuck in my mind for years and I can’t even remember the name of the book or its author:

It was raining when they rolled me out of the back seat
of my Chrysler and into the alley; not a heavy rain, more like a light mist.

Surprising. Simple. Visual. Funny. The reader is immediately inside the story and ready for it to take off.

One of my favorite authors, Thomas H. Cook, 
has great first sentences to begin his dark novels.

“The circle of life is often a noose.” 
The Dancer in the Dust.

“My father had a favorite line.”
 The Chatham School Affair

The question was never whether she would
live or die, for that had been decided long ago.” 
The Quest for Anna Klein

“This is the darkest story I ever heard.” 
Breakheart Hill

When you remember those times,
they return to you in a series of photographs.
 Red Leaves.

“He’d seen shadows of his own.” 
The Evidence of Blood.

There’s no magic bullet that will make that right title appear. But we can prepare the way.  Take a look at the first lines of novels you’ve enjoyed or haven’t enjoyed. Or use the book section of Amazon has a great feature called “Look Inside.” With it, you can go inside almost any novel and read the first pages. I recommend looking through first lines of novels at random.

See what works? See what doesn’t? See why and why not?

I’m a proponent of not forcing first lines. In fact, I’m a proponent of not forcing fiction writing at all; that is, not grinding it out. When we do that, we become calculative rather than creative.

We are not in charge of our creativity. We cannot press a button. We cannot make it do what we want, when we want. Creativity seems to have its own way. We simply have to make room in our day–at least a small and regular space–where inspiration may arrive, the imagination go free, and originality may begin to squeak through to us.

It's a ‘space’ where we let something happen.

That’s not being ‘clever.’ It’s being original. Meaning something that originates with us, with you or me.

Great first lines grow from that ‘space.’ As do all fine novels.

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