First Words: The importance of opening lines

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction and Writing Resource' started by Melyanna, Aug 12, 2003.

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  1. Melyanna

    Melyanna Jedi Padawan star 4

    Jul 19, 2001
    It's a complaint I've uttered many times myself and heard from many other authors: how in the world do you start a story so that people will want to continue to read it?

    Jane Austen began her masterpiece Pride and Prejudice with a (in my opinion) brilliant line: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." That sentence sets the reader up for everything that follows - we have satire, sarcasm, romance, intrigue, and of course, a good deal of presumption throughout the plot.

    C. S. Lewis opened The Voyage of the Dawn Treader with the words "There once was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb. And he almost deserved it." An English teacher once told me to look at the first lines of Shakespeare's plays, because they convey some meaning of the story - what would Richard III be without "Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York"?

    So how important are first lines? We always hear and talk about having catchy titles, but how do you get the reader to keep going after he's pulled you off the cybershelf? Are your first lines important to the story? Am I just rambling pointlessly? (Hey, stranger things have been reported - but never by reliable sources. ;) )

  2. LadyPadme

    LadyPadme Manager Emeritus star 5 VIP - Former Mod/RSA

    Sep 26, 2002

    I think it's true. First lines can sometimes make or break a story. I've certainly trolled through bookstores and decided to buy or not buy a story based on the first couple of pages. (Okay, well, I usually give the author a little more slack than just one line, but the first line definitely sets the tone.)

    "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were."


  3. Kit'

    Kit' Manager Emeritus star 5 VIP - Former Mod/RSA

    Oct 30, 1999
    I've always found it to be the opening post rather then the first line to be the most important ones. It's about grabbing and keeping attention.

    However, the first lines you pointed out where perfect Mely, and something that I've never noticed (let alone thought about) before....

    Perhaps it is because you are giving the reader just enough information to know what the story is about - but still leaving them wanting to know why Eustace Scrub deserved such a name. You know he's probably a disagreeable character, and the story is about a boy...but apart from that you are left wanting to know more...

  4. Dev_Binks

    Dev_Binks Jedi Knight star 6

    Aug 7, 2003
    Hey you're makeing me think of a horrible teacher but now that I think about it she's right you have to have something that grabs them holds them down opens there ears and eyes allowing you to shove whatever you want into the metaphorically speaking of course.
  5. Jaded Skywalker

    Jaded Skywalker Jedi Padawan star 4

    Nov 24, 1999
    For me, it's all about the last line. I think the last line carries what the novel is- what themes it explored and what emotions it evokes. Most of the time theyre simple, but there is usually some sort of connotation behind each word. It's the end to the writer's baby, it's only natural to make them special. :)

    Thats coming from a girl who reads the last page of a novel before buying it. ;)
  6. Jedi_Poltergeist

    Jedi_Poltergeist Jedi Grand Master star 10

    Jul 24, 2003
    The first line of a story is immensenly important in my opinon, just like the title, and sometimes, the look of the bookcover. Every time I begin reading a book or short story that starts with a usual line like "Once upon a time...." or " One day there was..." I'm bound to put it down after reading a few pages because it will be godawful boring is what my first thoughts are. Also, when I read first lines that are stuffed full with very "big", or scientific vocabulary that I might not know, then I will automatically consider the book too advanced to read...or as usual, plain boring.
    The words "A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...." are those "safe" kinds of first liners. Who can't resist the draw of reading about a galaxy a long, long time ago far, far away? I know I sure can't! :D
    A while ago I realized that in my better stories, I started out with a rhyming sentence, like a verse from a poem. A famous or not-so-famous quote is a nice first liner too. But of course, safe first liners will always work nice! :)
    Nick "Jedi_Poltergeist"
  7. Puggy

    Puggy Jedi Master star 3

    Oct 1, 2002
    Reading this thread's topic makes me think of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, a book that's famous for both its opening and closing (at least, towards the end, I don't believe it's actually the final line):

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

    Right there, to me, is a great first line. It makes a person wonder how it can be the best, yet the worst time--all at once. The line then goes on with other such contradictory statements.

    "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

    That line shows the truth growth of Sydney's character... It's as if he's having this revelation or something.

    First lines for books or fanfics have never really mattered to me, when it comes to whether or not I'm going to read the book. I'm extrememly picky with what I read in the first place, so I consider myself lucky when I find a "great" first line, hehe.

    I don't even like a specific type of first line. Here are two of my all time favorites, one from Jaws (by Peter Benchley; GREAT book, my mom got me to read it) and one from Love Story (Erich Segal; don't read if you don't want to be "spoiled"):

    The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail.

    Already, within just one sentence, you get such a "grasp" on this shark. I did, at least, hehe. Since I've seen the movie so many times, I knew what the book was about. But I loved the way the shark could be described in words.

    What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?

    When I read that line, my jaw dropped. I knew that someone was going to die, but I had no idea it would be revealed in sentence one. But that sentence is an attention grabber. You wonder what Oliver's going to say about Jenny, you wonder how she died, etc.

    For me, it's all about the last line. I think the last line carries what the novel is- what themes it explored and what emotions it evokes.

    I agree, Jaded_Skywalker. To me, the last line is everything, and it's always what I try to make best when I write. The last line reflects the overall mood and themes of the book. There have been books I've thoroughly enjoyed--up until the last line. Some last lines just don't satisfy, which just ruins the books for me.

    All right, well enough of my rambles... :)
  8. Ornen

    Ornen Jedi Padawan star 4

    Feb 22, 2003
    I prefer simple opening lines. I want a story that speaks in simple statements, without loads of detail that I'll ultimately end up skipping, and if the first line takes me more then a second to decipher, I almost instantly decide that what I am reading is a very good, detailed read, and thereforth, I shall run away screaming in fear, to come back 30 minutes later, sneak up on the computer (and without glancing at the monitor) hit the power button to turn it off and then restart it. From there on, whenever I see the fanfic's name on the boards, I quickly skip over it before it eats me alive.
  9. Spike2002

    Spike2002 Former FF-UK RSA and Arena Manager star 6 VIP - Former Mod/RSA

    Feb 4, 2002
    I start off with some action. Get the reader caught hook, line and sinker into the story.
  10. solojones

    solojones Chosen One star 10

    Sep 27, 2000
    Action can be good, I've done that myself. Throwing the reader right into a battle or something. With the novel I'm writing, though, I just started out with the line "His name was Dean Abel" because I want the reader to know right off who this story is about, even though it's from the first person perspective of another character.

    [hl=firebrick]-sj loves kevin spacey[/hl]
  11. SW_Phoenix

    SW_Phoenix Jedi Youngling star 1

    Aug 13, 2003
    Yeah, I like to begin my stories and novels that way too sometimes, solojones . I always, always start off with a major subject-to-be in my stories if you want to know how I start my opening lines.

    BTW-Dean Abel has a nice rythm to it! ;)
  12. solojones

    solojones Chosen One star 10

    Sep 27, 2000
    Heh thanks ;)

    I always liked the beginning to To Kill a Mockingbird with... "When he was nearly 13 my brother Jem got his arm broke badly at the elbow" (sorry if that's not quite right). Because then you wonder right up until the very end (several years later from the beginning) how that happened. It's like this character remembers that detail and it leads her (Scout) to tell this whole long story.

    [hl=firebrick]-sj loves kevin spacey[/hl]
  13. Darth_Leia_6669

    Darth_Leia_6669 Jedi Padawan star 4

    Apr 26, 2003
    I know that I always put a lot of care into the first paragraph. And not just for the story, but for each chapter as well. That, and the ending paragraph is usually what gets rewritten the most. For me, these are the most important to get exactly right as far as setting the tone. This goes for the entire first and last posts of the story as well.

    As far as when I'm deciding on a book, I'll read the first paragraph or two, and if it hasn't grabbed me by then, I know it won't if I keep reading. I try to capture the reader within that frame.

    Nice topic!

  14. Mcily_Nochi

    Mcily_Nochi Jedi Padawan star 4

    Sep 23, 2001
    Ah, yes, first lines. This is one of my greatest struggles. I seem able to open a fanfic just fine, but whenever I have an idea for an original story, I sit down to write it in great excitement, only to look over my first few pages and delete them with a sigh.

    Yet, when I look over my favorite books I'm always discouraged, because they all have good opening lines.

    A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle: "It was a dark and stormy night."

    Rebecca by Daphne De Maurier: "Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again."

    And the classic "Call me Ishmael."

    *rueful grin* I suppose the lesson we should all learn from this is not to read great literature when looking for encouragement in one's own writing. ;)
  15. Dancing_Jansons

    Dancing_Jansons Jedi Master star 3

    Oct 1, 2002
    I agree, opening lines are very important.

    I always write my beginnings last. The middle is so much easier. Beginning a story or a paper is always the most difficult for me.
  16. Syntax

    Syntax Jedi Grand Master star 5

    Aug 1, 2001
    Well.. while I almost ALWAYS write my endings first (often times, I'll come up with a really cool ending, and then base an entire fanfic around how the ending comes to pass), I agree that intros are important.
    For example, I really like my introduction to 'Traitors':
    The mission had been botched from the start. That is, if one could even call it a ?mission?. Pilots rarely referred to a random scramble announced 7 minutes prior as a ?mission?, but rather a ?reaction?, or a ?screw-up?. And now the crew and pilots of the Liberty were involved in one.

    I also tried starting out action, in 'The Big Chill':

    The Corellian Corvette Interloper tumbled through the planet?s atmosphere, its bridge section exploded outward and still flaming. The Corvette went into a roll, the craft spinning end over end in an uncontrolled twirl that brought it towards an open area on the planet?s surface. Two Z-95 Headhunters were hot on the Interloper?s tail as it careened towards the planet?s surface, gaining speed as the hull began to heat up. The Corvette struck the ground with explosive force, debris flying high into the air as the hull snapped in half, scattering shards of metal and raining fire on the landscape. Not that the fires mattered much: the Interloper had just crash-landed on the icy plains of Hoth.

    With 'Acceptable Losses', I tried to put the reader right into the thick of things, to immediately show that there's danger involved, and the characters' lives are in jeopardy:

    ?Get in the speeder.?

    ?What?? Kevin Ray asked, looking to his left as a red Jenkon 2800 convertible landspeeder pulled up alongside him at the curb. A LOM-series protocol droid was seated behind the steering wheel.

    ?Do as I said. Your life is in danger,? the droid said. ?Now get in the speeder.? He popped the passenger-side door.

    As I see it, the very opening can be important, but sometimes it's hard to make a story start off with a bang. A lot of my fanfics start off really innocuous, even if big stuff shows up fairly soon thereafter.
  17. MariahJade2

    MariahJade2 Former Fan Fiction Archive Editor star 5 VIP

    Mar 18, 2001
    I think the opening's that work best are short but create a question or a reaction in the mind of the reader. One that compells you to continue on to find the answer. I like the examples that have been listed.

    To Kill a Mockingbird: "When he was nearly 13 my brother Jem got his arm broke badly at the elbow"

    You want to know how that happened and why the person is thinking about it.

    Rebecca by Daphne De Maurier: "Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again."

    Why is she dreaming of this place and what is important about it? Just the name Manderley sounds exotic or far off.

    "Call me Ishmael."

    The biblical name suggests importance, inviting you in to meet this person. To look for the response to that phrase.

  18. Thumper09

    Thumper09 Force Ghost star 4

    Dec 9, 2001
    Interesting topic. :) I look forward to reading it.

    Is anyone familiar with the [link=]Bulwer-Lytton[/link] bad fiction contest? To quote the website, it's "a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels." Some of them are long and drawn out to fit a lot in that one sentence, which can make it hard to read (possibly "what not to do"?). However, it's amazing how imaginative some of them are and what you can convey in an opening line about the rest of the story. :)

    I personally like to open with a twist, but sometimes that's just too hard for me to accomplish.

  19. Jane Jinn

    Jane Jinn Jedi Knight star 5

    Jan 12, 2000
    I've just looked over all my recent stories, and with one exception, they all open with a line of dialogue. My most recent effort is a tiny fic-let for the original character challenge:

    "And when I die," Otom Pan said, "bury me under the muja trees. I'm good fertilizer, you know."

    Without trying to hype my own work, I think this is the kind of sentence that will pull the reader in and make them want to read more. (I hope so, anyway.) I wish I could do this consistently. Some of my other stories haven't been as fortunate with first lines.

    "Obi-Wan!" The girl's voice was surprised and delighted at the same time.

    That's kind of blah, no punch to it at all, nothing to indicate anything about the story ahead.

    I think I could really use a new, improved first line for the novel-length fic I'm currently working on, though.

    "There you are," said the small, almost-stern-looking woman waiting at the bottom of the loading ramp.

    Blah. It doesn't help introduce the real story at all. I need something else, something powerful, something ... like the first line of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury:

    It was a pleasure to burn.

    I also like the first line of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, by J.K. Rowling:

    Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

    Almost immediately we know that there's going to be conflict between their normality and someone who isn't 'normal'.

    Very interesting discussion, Melyanna! I'd never thought of it before, but now I'll never be able to forget. :)
  20. solojones

    solojones Chosen One star 10

    Sep 27, 2000
    It was a pleasure to burn. is one of my all-time favourite opening lines. It just grabs you and makes you think- what the heck?

    Let's see, some examples of my openings for original short stories of mine... tell me what you think:

    Eye to Eye to Eye
    The people of the past imagined the future would come much sooner than it has.

    The Bounds of Terra
    Every new beginning of hours, the Blue Orb slowly appears over Terra.

    An inky darkness. Calm, silent. Suddenly, dim moonlight pierced the darkness. The wood floor creaked slowly. A silhouette of a woman slid across the room. Sudden movement, a crash, a shout. Unintelligible flashes of images, one after the other. Bang, bang, bang! A knife slashing, followed by a thud. Raging eyes. The face of a boy. Shouting, and then blood, blood everywhere. A sharp choking breath and the boy?s panicked face.
    Wake up!
    The woman bolted up and drew a few rapid gasps.

    Then there's something else I'd like to mention. Sometimes I like it when, before the actual story begins, you have a quote or a poem or something that draws you in. For instance, the beginning of that story Specter of mine has this before it:

    Specter (n.)
    1. A ghostly apparition; a phantom 2. A haunting or disturbing image or prospect

    And some other times I've used pieces of poetry I liked to kind of set the mood. I get story titles from poems sometimes, like Fiend Angelical (my novel, a line from Romeo and Juliet) and Hero in the Strife (a fic, a Longfellow poem).

    I know that when I read Brave New World, my version of the novel had a quote before it. It was in French, which thankfully I speak, but I've never been able to find the quote again :( It was very profound, something like- "...and some day they will achieve a world that's not a 'Utopia', less 'perfect', and more 'free'..." It was from some French philosophe or something. It really set the tone for the novel I thought.

    [hl=firebrick]-sj loves kevin spacey[/hl]
  21. ArnaKyle

    ArnaKyle Jedi Master star 4

    Nov 12, 2000
    I knew you were going to use the Jane Austen example, Mely. :p

    In any case, first lines are important to actually selling the book, but the last lines are the ones that really bring it all together. One of my favorite first lines is from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina:

    "All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

    It's fascinating, it ties in beautifully to the story, and it's in a way quite true. A first line really, I think, depends on the tone of the story. Like the Austen reference, I was convinced to buy the book (though I have yet to read it), because it does have an excellent first line. That's also why I decided to read all 817 pages of Anna Karenina instead of a 100 page play-- because it interested me. The longer the story, I feel, the more interesting the line needs to be-- but with news writing, in contrast, leads must be short, interesting, and informative.

    Grabbing attention is difficult, because for most stories, it won't be a microcosm of the story. In my personal opinion, good first lines are intriguing, reasonably simple, and memorable-- and hopefully reflect something important about the story. But as others have mentioned, sometimes the most beautiful lyricism occurs in the middle of something or at the end. I may not be able to quote all of the first lines of books I've read, but I can quote some of the best passages I've read-- heck, I'll even quote Walden "The sun is but a morning star" when it strikes me. Most of the time I will read a book if I set out with that intention, but the first chapter especially will affect my feelings towards the book.
  22. Dantana Skywalker

    Dantana Skywalker Manager Emeritus star 5 VIP - Former Mod/RSA

    Apr 7, 2002
    I usually give a book a shot based on the first page, not just the first line, but yes, the first line of a 'fic can be important. Very important.

    It's funny that I should find this thread right now, because I just finished looking over one of my stories, All Paths Drowned Deep In Shadow. It's a vignette, but the first line, which just popped into my head and I hadn't even been intending to write, inspired the whole entire piece.

    I noticed that I start with dialogue an awful lot, and I've been trying to get away from that. I try to draw the reader in more than with just an unknown character speaking.

    Since this is a fanfic forum, I looked over several of my stories, because I have easy access to them, to study the psychology of an interesting opening line. One that immediately makes the reader start thinking about what's going on in the story.

    All Paths Drowned Deep In Shadow:
    What have I done?

    The reader immediately starts pondering who the speaker is, and what atrocity they've committed.

    Shouldn't Have:
    It shouldn't have turned out like this. I have to admit, it was my own fault.

    Makes the reader wonder WHAT shouldn't have happened, who this person is, and how it's their fault.

    Lift Me Up:
    A flight from Sydney, Australia to Auckland, New Zealand, is only supposed to take three hours and fifteen minutes. It seemed, to twenty-one-year-old Jaina McGregor, to take a lot longer than that in actual practise. Especially when her flight got in to Auckland International Airport at half past three in the morning. It was early March, and hot as Hades.

    Dumps the reader right into the setting, and tells you that the character has had a bad night, without saying, "It had been a bad night."

    Pirates of The Caribbean: The Curse of the Devil's Hand:
    Port Royal was embroiled in chaos.

    Designed to make the reader wonder, "What's happening to Port Royal?"

    From What I've Seen:
    The bowl was just out of her reach. Her fingertips brushed the ceramic, but fell short of a firm grip on it.

    Who's reaching for the bowl, what are they doing with it, and why the heck is this in a Star Wars story? ;)

    Here I Am:
    The singing had to stop.

    Makes the reader wonder who's singing, what they're singing, and why the singing has to stop. Or it should.

    Letting her go was the last thing he wanted to do.

    Makes the reader wonder who's speaking, who the woman is, and why he has to let her go.

    As for books . . . The ones listed above are classics. But I have to add Diana Gabaldon, one of my favourite authors, whose most recent book, "The Fiery Cross", begins with, "I woke to the patter of rain on canvas, and the touch of my first husband's kiss on my lips." She always has a good opener, either to the book itself or the prologue, which is usually a bit of thought, that seems to have little to do with the story when you first get into it, but the further you get into the book, the more sense it makes.

    My personal favourite is the prologue in Gabaldon's book "Voyager". I can't remember it exactly, but the first line goes something like, "When I was a child, I avoided stepping in puddles."

    Just my handful of change on the subject.

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