Feb 20, 2015 · 42 Comments
When I first started writing, I kept remembering a scene I saw in this old movie called Throw Momma from the Train. In that movie, the main character was a writer with a bad case of writer's block because he couldn't think of a great first line to start his book.
That had me nervous about the importance of the first line before I ever wrote one.
Then, when I started to read more about writing, it got worse. There's a lot of talk out there about first lines and how important they are and all the jobs they have to do in a story. First chapters are important, but first pages are more important than those, and first lines are the most important of all. That's an awful lot of pressure to put on one poor line!
Some first lines are super famous, too. People remember those when they don't remember anything else about the story. For example: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." From Tale of Two Cities. (my confession: I've never gotten around to reading the book, but I know that first line anyway!)
Here's some of the things a first line is meant to do:
It should ask a question, pose a problem, or do something else to hook your reader and keep them reading.
It should set the theme for the story (that is a whole discussion of its own), and give the reader a hint of what sort of story it will be.
It should be a good example of the 'voice' of the story, and maybe tell us a bit about the character.
There's a whole bunch more things, but I think those three are enough to terrify you into never writing a first line ever! They were for me.
Then I figured out something. Just because it's the first line and it's important and blah blah blah, doesn't mean you have to start there. In fact, it can be kind of good not to worry about the first line until you're done with the book, or at least, you're a fair way through it. You don't need it to start.
Sometimes, that line comes easily and gets you going on a story and you're off! Other times, you stare at the blank page and nothing happens until you give up and go play video games or something.
I guess everyone has a different way of handling their first lines. But I often don't write it until the whole rest of the book is done and I know more about the characters and story. Sometimes it will hit me part way through, and the perfect line just pops into my head. Other times, I come up with an awesome first line and have no story to go with it. In fact, I've got a file of those on my computer that drive me crazy.
I think the important thing is to not put too much pressure on yourself. The more pressured you feel, the harder it is to think of something good. It will get better with practice, just like everything else. Writing is no different. One day it gets easier.
So, my advice is, don't expect to be perfect, don't get hung up too much on those first lines, and relax. Write your story like you're telling it to your best friend in an email, and worry about grammar and style and all those other things when you go back to revise it. And most of all--write, read, write, read, rinse and repeat!
Do you have any favorite first lines? Share them in the comments!
PS: If you have any questions about writing that you'd like to hear about, let us know in the comments and we'll do our best!