The First Line

In every creative writing class the instructor is sure to note at some point the importance of the first line. These few words should grab the reader, and lead her into the rest of the story. We all know the classic first lines by Tolstoy and Chekhov and Chandler and Christie, but those don’t really help us with writing our own. I didn’t always recognize the brilliance of some first lines, which made coming up with my own even harder.

At first the issue seemed to be to write something intriguing. For the first book in the Mellingham series, I wrote and rewrote the first line along with the first chapter, writing, in the end, three first chapters and stacking them one in front of the other. In the end I was persuaded to cut most of them, and I ended up with what I thought was a pretty good first line for Murder in Mellingham. “It had been some time since Lee Handel had ventured out willingly on a social occasion, but his wife, Hannah, had reassured him that this party would be safe.” This line sets the stage for the evening to come but not much else. That line introduced the first of seven titles in the Mellingham series.

The first line of Under the Eye of Kali, the first in the Anita Ray series, was even less connected with the story to follow, but it set the scene nicely. “Guests from various foreign countries began filling up the Hotel Delite dining room, taking every seat at the main table—this was a small hotel, only eight rooms, with the owner’s, Meena Nayar’s, suite on the top floor, and that of her niece, Anita Ray, above a separate garage.” This was the first of four books, with a fifth one waiting on my desk.

You would think by the time I came to write my thirteenth book that I would have mastered the art of the first line, but you’d be wrong. Below the Tree Line opens with what I regard as a terrific line, but it isn’t necessarily the best first line for a mystery novel. But I didn’t come to this conclusion until recently. Below the Tree Line opens with this: “On the third night Felicity lifted the shotgun from its place in the cabinet, and this time she loaded it.” There isn’t much wrong with this line as it stands, but it doesn’t tell you as much as you might think about what’s coming next.

After publishing dozens of shorts stories and thirteen novels, I tried a new approach in creating the perfect first line. I don’t know if the result is perfect, but I established a definition of that first sentence that works for me. I now consider the first line as the apex of a pyramid, and the story is within that pyramid. Whatever happens must be traceable back directly to the first line. This by itself means extraneous scenes, extra characters, digressions into backstory, or a humorous or romantic subplot that is more filler than mystery, are all to be excluded.

In my current novel, now with my agent, I rewrote and reworked the first line more than a dozen times until I had something that, like a math or drawing compass whose points never deviate as they draw the circle, could embrace the entire story, holding each part in tight, streamlining and smoothing the narrative. This, then, is the first line of So Comes the Reckoning: “The first time Renee watched a man die, she was eleven years old, kneeling beside him as he lay on the ground.”

As I wrote the 82,000 word story I kept that first line in front of me and asked myself repeatedly, Is what I’m writing now linked to that statement? If not, why not? It was hard to find myself jettisoning entire chapters because I seemed to think they were needed but could find no connection to the first line and its implications. Why was she there? Why was this a first time? Why did she not, as an eleven-year-old child, run away or at least stand apart? The implications of those words kept me on track.

Since then I have come to appreciate the difference between a good snappy sentence and a good first line to a particular novel. They are not necessarily the same. The challenge is to combine them in such a way that the story unfolds from those opening words. It’s an ongoing challenge.

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