First lines are a bitch.
So much hinges on them -- they have to provide enough punch to hit like a harpoon and pull the reader in for the long haul. Whether your book is more Moby Dick or Life of Pi, everything hinges on those first few words.
I’ve read a lot of books on writing that talk about how important that first line is. Sometimes there are entire chapters devoted to discussing the precious first sentence, with examples provided from great works of literature to show how great their first lines are. The Great Gatsby is the great old standby.
I hear about how important that first line is at conferences, conventions, and in webinars. When people write a first great line at workshops, they get complimented. But the relative science behind how to write that great first line is never discussed. I've heard over and over again what is a great first line, but now how to write one. Until I figured it out myself.
After reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook, I wrote my most recent short story. And then I had an epiphany. It was like divine intervention, slowly coalescing into a formula I can share … right now:
The first sentence should make the reader ask at least three questions about what happens next.
The best questions are the old standbys: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? To show you how this works, I’m going to take some of my favorite books from the past 30 years, and show you why and how the first line drew me in, and what questions they ask.
First Up: Oryx & Crake - Margaret Atwood
Snowman wakes before dawn.
Who is Snowman? Why is his name Snowman? A name like Snowman makes us ask: What kind of book is this? Why is he awake before dawn? What made him wake up?
Second Up: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke
Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians.
Really? Some years ago makes us ask: How many years ago? Is it still there? What did they do? From the cadence of the writing we get an idea of what kind of book this is, but: Were there really magicians in York? What's going on here?
Third Up: The Meaning of Night - Michael Cox*
After killing the red-haired man, I took myself to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.
Why did the narrator kill the red-haired man? Why him in particular? What kind of person can kill a man and just go eat dinner? Who is the narrator?
So when looking at the beginning of your book or story, ask yourself, “Does this make me ask questions? How many? Where are these questions answered?”
Ah ha! There’s the next step. I have a specific process that I’ve seen other writers do in their books and stories, but not everyone does it. Ann Leckie doesn't do it in Ancillary Justice (which I'm reading now). I love the book, and am learning a lot from it, but she does some things that don't fit with how I write. So, like all advice, adapt it to your style.
What I do when I’m writing is have the first line’s questions be answered somewhere in the first paragraph or two, but with the barest briefest amount of info. There's also a trick to that first paragraph: it has to make you ask questions, too. My process is below:
I try to keep the reader in constant wonder throughout the first scene or chapter. Not until the end of that scene/chapter do I ask that big question or drop the clue that will carry through the entire piece — That’s where I put Chekov’s Gun.
The above idea isn’t all mine, I adapted it to my work after reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook, which is a great book on writing for sci-fi/fantasy writers. It was a game-changer for me the way Stephen King’s On Writing was when I was starting out.
Caveat! I use this trick all the time. Not only at the beginning of big works, but sometimes throughout smaller works, and spattered all over bigger works, essays, and blog posts. I’ve even caught myself doing it in emails and social media posts. It’s spread like a plague over everything I write. Except texting, that’s safe … for now.
Your first line and first couple paragraphs will make or break whether your piece is a Yes or a No. I’m not saying this formula is foolproof, there’s a zillion other factors in why something doesn’t sell beyond whether your first line was killer or not. But I hope this at least helps.
Hell, maybe you already figured this all out. I hope you did. Then we can feel super smart together.
*(I am including The Meaning of Night because it was a gift, and I knew nothing about it. But when I opened it up and read that first sentence, it hit me so hard, I didn’t put it down until it was done. That’s what I aspire to.)