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Tuesday, May 21, 2013
A Novel’s All Important First Line
If other writers are anything like me, they struggle with the first line of every novel. It is the line that catches the readers’ attention and sets the tone for the entire story. The most notable first lines in history are well and widely known. Who can possibly forget lines such as?
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Perhaps we don’t all remember every word of this incredibly long sentence. Unless you are also prone to memorize poetry you probably do not get much past the first twelve words. In that one sentence Dickens gives us an overview of the story to be told. Memorable, poignant, and important, the elements we all strive to produce in our work and most importantly represent in our first line.
My first attempt at a first line is usually quite easy. Of course after I finish the prologue or first chapter I generally rewrite the first line. After the second chapter I do it again and I continue this process throughout the writing. What happens to me is, as we have discussed before, the characters influence their own stories and their personalities and by making these changes they alter the first line introduction to the story.
The process is fluid and self-settling, it requires the author to be open to the possibility that the opening line is not in his mind. Rather, it comes from the minds of his story’s characters. If the opening line does not touch the writer’s sensitivity, it most certainly will not touch the reader.
When you begin a new novel I encourage you to read the first line aloud. Allow it to roll off your tongue, savor the moment, and let it touch your heart. Remember how it makes you feel. You might even write those feelings on a slip of paper. When you finish the book bring that memory out and consider how the first line set the stage for the book you just read. See if that feeling matches your impression of the book. I hope you will find many first lines equivalent to the quality and creative uniqueness of the books you read.
There is so much to be discovered on the written page, we have only to look!
Your comments and questions are always welcome.
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