A Novel Idea

First lines: literary flashing

Posted on: July 5, 2010

What does it take to get your attention?

The phrase ‘You never get a second chance to make a first impression’ is well worn, but especially pertinent to a writer navigating slush piles.

Publishers receive so many unsolicited manuscripts that it is physically impossible for them to read your entire work. You’re lucky if they finish your first page before moving on to the next manuscript.

First impressions matter. Your first page or perhaps only your first line will be judged as emblematic of the quality of the thousands of words which follow.

How do you craft a riveting first line?

My writing process, unlike a good scientific experiment is not consistently reproducible.

Sometimes the first line I write proves to be the both the first line of the story and the best choice. Sometimes I have to write the story before I can pin the opening down.

Right now I’m working on the first draft of my first novel. I’ve set myself the milestone of Bastille Day to finish it. There’s about a hundred pages between now and then to write. I should be tapping the keyboard furiously to close the gap, but instead my mind is circling the opening sentence like a vulture sensing death.

I turn to other novels I love for insight. Here are their first lines:

“It was her scars that made her beautiful.”

~Mary Gentle, Ash: A Secret History

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

~ Gabriel Garcia Marquez,  One Hundred Years of Solitude

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a fortune, is in need of a wife.”

~ Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Great first lines not only grab your attention, they pull you into the story.

I may have been going to far by equating them with flashing, but they’re just as arresting. 

I wonder whether these gems arrived in the first draft stage. How marvellous if they did.

What are your favourite first lines of published works?

I best get on with the remaining hundred pages…

Write well. Write often.


(C) Copyright of the author. 2010.


4 Responses to "First lines: literary flashing"

You are indeed correct, first lines are very important. I cannot recall any specific ones from my fave novels, will have to go look them up but this is something I am contemplating myself as I thought I had my first first line, until I found something else I’d written that appears even better.

By the way, I’ve read more than once, that agents detest reading a manuscript starting with the weather (the cliche “It was a dark and stormy night” comes to mind) but the other pet peeve for them is reading a Ms that starts with a waking up sequence, something I had no idea about.

Hi Violet, I’m enjoying your blog. I’m writing my first novel at the moment, and know what you mean about the importance of that first line, even the first word! I personally try to avoid using personal pronouns, ‘it,’ ‘the,’ or someone’s name to start a story, but sometimes it’s unavoidable, and if I have to use one of the above I’m usually annoyed with myself for at least a little while after. Starting with dialogue is always fun though, and, I feel, grabs the attention straight away.

Keep writing! I’ll be checking back to see how you’re getting on.

Best wishes with your journey.

The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed. – Stephen King.

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