Three Ways In: Tips on Writing First Lines

Three First Lines:

1) “I am convinced that my father looked at me, really saw me, only once.”

2) “People were telling one another that a newcomer had been seen on the promenade–a lady with a dog.”

3) “Before I met Tim–who, in spite of everything I’m about to tell you, would be my best friend for the next four or five years–my mother warned me on the way over to his grandmother’s house that I had to be nice to him.”

These first lines don’t tell you everything. No journalistic “who, what, where, why and when.” Fiction doesn’t have to provide answers. Instead, it must stimulate questions, in the reader. We read fiction to raise our blood pressure . . . which in turn makes us more relaxed, much the way cardiovascular exercise raises our heart rate in order to make our hearts healthy. Okay, not sure the metaphoric equation works, but you get the idea. I hope.

It just strikes me as funny that there is a tension involved in reading–good reading–but there is nothing more relaxing than being caught in the grip of a great novel or story, unable to stop reading. It feels so active, this kind of reading, so involving, and yet there’s the ol’ body, lying in bed, the book propped on pillow or chest . . .

But that’s the middle. In the beginning, we’re more tentative. We pick up the book and know we might put it down again. We’re starting a relationship with this new story, and we don’t know if we like it, if we care what happens in it, if we’re going to go the distance.

We read, “I am convinced that my father looked at me, really saw me, only once.” (Alice Munro, “Face,” The New Yorker, Sept. 8, 2008, p. 59.) What? Here’s a shocking claim. All we know about the person making the claim is that he (as will prove to be the case here) is “convinced.” Certain. And that his father, if he is right, only looked at him, in the sense of really seeing him, one time. That suggests conflict. Two characters not meeting each other’s needs, locked into a relationship of high need. It’s a brash statement that goes against basic expectations of the parent-child relationship.

Try writing a strong, shocking claim like this that turns a socially-given relationship on its head.

A lot can be suggested in one line: “People were telling one another that a newcomer had been seen on the promenade–a lady with a dog.” (Anton Chekhov, “The Lady with the Dog,” Norton Anthology of Short Fiction (NASF), eds. Cassill and Bausch, p. 236.)

Gossip. “People were telling one another . . .” A whole social world is suggested here, and an importance is given to this newcomer’s arrival because rumors are circulating about her. She represents a change in the status quo. And, of course, this is the first line of Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog,” so the title is echoed in the first line, and we know that this lady and her dog matter.

Try introducing a change in the status quo through gossip, and set it up with a title you can echo at the end of the first line.

3) “Before I met Tim–who, in spite of everything I’m about to tell you, would be my best friend for the next four or five years–my mother warned me on the way over to his grandmother’s house that I had to be nice to him.”  (Donna Tartt, “Ambush,” from Tin House,in Best American Short Stories 2006, ed. Ann Patchett, series ed. Katrina Kenison.)

There are two levels of warning offered here. The mother’s overt warning to the narrator takes place in the action of the story. The second warning comes in the aside. It suggests that the events to come contradict the eventual friendship that does, we are told, develop. Both warnings alert us to conflict, and we love conflict (when we are reading).

So try working two warnings into an opening line–one in the action and one in the narration. One from a character and one from the narrator herself.

Each of these first lines introduces at least two characters in some sort of opposition. By creating your own examples, you will suggest whole stories to yourself.

You’ll notice I’ve suggested imitation. Artists go sit in museums and recreate the masters. Why shouldn’t we writers imitate technique? I’ve found it a great way to develop my writing muscles. Feel free to imitate not only the function but also the rhythms and structure of a sentence.

I remember a fight in graduate school. A bunch of people were up in arms about some avant-garde poets who simply rearranged the dictionary and called it art. I shrugged. In essence, we are all rearranging the dictionary–because words are what we have to work with. Plagiarism? NO! Respectful imitation? By all means . . .


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