Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again.
Last night, I tried for the hundredth time to craft the perfect first sentence. Do you know what I ended up with? I ended up with:
That took me an hour to settle on. I’m not sure it will be making any ‘hundred best first lines’ list in the near future.
The first line has to be the hardest to write of the whole book. The weight of expectation. The need to hook the reader (or – even fussier – the agent or editor) from the very start is drummed into aspiring writers from the moment they start to take their craft seriously, and begin to read up on book-writing advice. You have to start in the middle of the action. You have a couple of minutes, if you’re lucky, to hold the attention of your hyper-critical first reader. But is it true?
In the spirit of enquiry, I picked a few books at random off the shelf and read the first line. Here are a selection:
Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August, 1960.
The Help, Kathryn Stockett
The American handed Leamas another cup of coffee and said, “Why don’t you go back to sleep? We can ring you if he shows up.”
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John Le Carré
She had come from the plane and was even now forgetting the ride from the airport.
The Last Time They Met, Anita Shreve.
These lines are certainly not bad, of course. They are interesting in a quiet way, but hardly the grab-by-the-throat agent-seducing lines that we might have come to expect based on received wisdom. A common misconception is that the first line must hook through action or shock or fascination; that the plot must capture the reader and lure them into reading all the way to the end. The classic “pose a question and then delay the answer” method. If you can pull that off, then fab – of course that’s an effective way of drawing in your audience. But just as often, the first line hook is not so much about plot as about the Authorial Voice. A compelling voice that speaks to you, seduces you, intrigues you, can be just as powerful as a shocking event or arresting image, and in fact is more likely to carry the reader to the end of the book (and leave them with a desire for even more).
So how do we aspiring writers achieve this? Well, there are a lot of articles out there (with classic examples) about what a first line should do. Set up the plot. Introduce the protagonist. Establish mood and setting. These tend to bring us back to the issue of unbearable expectations. We know what we must try to do, but it piles on the psychological pressure. Is there a way to get past the first line performance anxiety?
Here’s a few ideas:
1) Start writing before the story starts
Take a run-up. Start writing your story before the triggering event, giving yourself time to settle into the rhythm of writing and get comfortable with laying the words out neatly. Run up to your triggering event and write right through it into the story. When you are creatively spent, stop, go back, and cut off the artificial prelude at the point when the story really begins, choosing a sentence that appeals to you. You can then, of course, polish this and fiddle and fuss and over worry, but at least you have confidence that you wrote it naturally and easily and not with the terrible glare of the blank white page dazzling you.
2) Wait for flow
Ah, beautiful flow. When every word that drips from your fingertips is liquid gold. When the words tumble out by the hundreds, and time and memory fade back from the intimate immediacy of you and your story. When this all too infrequent magic grips you, take a moment to dash off a first line. You might as well capitalize on Grace when it comes.
3) Write it at the end
The euphoria of the ending. Now you know for sure what your story is really about, what your characters true characters are, and the shape of the whole majestic plot is laid out before you. That’s a good moment to write a line that embodies the main theme of your story; a worthy foundation stone.
Part of the game with performance anxiety is trickery. Try and take the first line by surprise. Craft it in a quiet moment when the Internal Editor isn’t looking, hide it in the middle of a flow of words, write it at an unexpected time. Take some of the weight of expectation off your shoulders and the lightness and relief may just uplift you enough to find the magic.
Of course, you’ve then got to come up with the perfect title.