First Lines & The Active Imperative


famous-first-linesThere are a million things your reader could be doing other than reading your book: gaming, sleeping, a little light carpentry, you get the idea. If they pick the book up, they’re going to give it a very brief chance to justify its claim on their time. So your opening line has to be strong enough to keep them moving to the next, and your first page has to be sufficiently gripping to make them turn to the second. How do you make sure that the start of your book is strong enough to grab your reader by the throat and not let go?

Scott Bell did some analysis of first lines and came to the following conclusion:

First, they give the name of a character. This specificity creates the illusion of reality from the get-go. A variation on this is to begin with a pronoun… however, a name gives that extra measure of verisimilitude and makes the willing suspension of disbelief that much easier. The second thing is that something is happening or about to happen to the character. And not just anything – something ominous or dangerous. Give the readers this feeling of motion from the very start.   ~ Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell

Motion and conflict are critical to story-telling anyway. What Scott Bell is saying, then, is that you should get on with it. Don’t give a soft lead-in. This is a fairly common piece of advice – to start writing as close to the action as you possibly can. There are very few hard and fast rules in writing but this is quite a good one to follow, particularly if you keep in mind the difference between drama and melodrama. Motion/action doesn’t necessarily have to be a world-shaking event. The opening line of Jane Eyre, for example, is

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.   ~ Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

This is clearly disruption to the character’s life, a flavour of trouble, but it’s a very minor thing. The lack of a walk hardly threatens the stability of the Empire but you want to read the next sentence to learn why it wasn’t possible. Compare this to what is probably my favourite opening line of all time:

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.   ~ Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis

Isn’t it wonderful? You instantly know something about the character and want to know more. Who was this unfortunate and what could he possibly have done to deserve such a name? And finally, as a great example of bringing character, action and concision together:

Elmer Gantry was drunk.   ~ Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis

Dialogue can totally count as action, by the way. It’s something happening right now, moving forward in time. That’s what action really boils down to – moving the story forwards immediately. As Jack Bickham says in 38 Writing Mistakes, if you frontload with backstory it feels like stalling and the reader isn’t emotionally pulled in. History and description can come later – past the opening page – once the reader has committed to investing time and emotion in your book. Act first, explain later. If explanation is essential from the beginning then do it as part of confrontation – an argument which gives both conflict and characterisation, and of course action in the form of dialogue.

I’ve put quite a lot of effort into the first line for Corpus, hence this post. In one sentence I’ve tried to introduce the protagonist, a flavour of the setting and a hint of trouble. This is what I came up with – let me know whether you think I’ve succeeded!

According to the Temple it was an age of equality and fraternity, and Mercy Uath wasn’t stupid enough to disagree out loud.

3 responses »

  1. “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”

    • Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft. Introduces character by pronoun and a hint of trouble. Not sure about action, although ‘journey’ is an action word, but the conflict suggested fills in for that.

  2. Pingback: Openings | Andrew Knighton writes

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