We often hear about how every story needs a killer first line that hooks the reader and drags them into the story. But how often do we really stop and think about the opening lines we read? If you’re like me, you probably barely even notice them, and don’t remember them when you’re done with the next line, let alone the story.
So how do we learn to write great first lines? Well, one way is to find some examples to study. I recently had just such an opportunity when I read Mary Robinette Kowal’s short story collection, “Word Puppets”. Two of the stories have won Hugo awards, and one was nominated.
So let’s look at her first lines:
Light dappled through the trees in the family courtyard, painting shadows on the paving stones. (The Bound Man)
Dear Grandma, Your letters beat me to Husa and I’ve told the computer to dole them out at the intervals that you sent them. (Chrysalis)
As the warrior guided his horse back home, she pondered what the future might hold. (Rampion)
Kahe peeked over the edge of the earthen trench as his tribe’s retreating warriors broke from the bamboo grove onto the lava field. (At the Edge of Dying)
The clockwork chickadee was not as pretty as the nightingale. (The Clockwork Chickadee)
Saskia leaned into the darkness above the stage, only vaguely aware of the wooden rail against her hips as she re-tied the left headstring on her marionette. (Body Language)
The sun peeking through the grapevines felt hotter on Bharat Mundari’s neck than twenty-four degrees. (Waiting for Rain)
Mary Elois Jackson stood inside the plain steel box of the time machine. (First Flight)
Sliding his hands over the clay, Sly relished the moisture oozing around his fingers. (Evil Robot Monkey)
The afternoon sun angled across the scarred wood counter despite the bamboo shade Elise had lowered. (The Consciousness Problem)
His keys dropped, rattling on the parquet floor. (For Solo Cello, op. 12)
With one hand, Rava adjusted the VR interface glasses where they bit into the bridge of her nose, while she kept her other hand buried in Cordelia’s innards. (For Want of a Nail)
I was born Rosa Carlotta Silvana Grisanti, but in the mid-eighties, I legally changed my name to Eve. (The Shocking Affair of the Dutch Steamship Friesland)
Melia adjusted Dora’s salt-suit, feeling as if it were futile because the two-year old would have the sweatband off her head the instant Melia’s back was turned. (Salt of the Earth)
Half-consciously, Kim put a hand up to cover her new nose ring. (American Changeling)
Viola leaned across the white tablecloth of Luigi’s Interstellar Cafe and Pub. (The White Phoenix Feather: A Tale of Cuisine and Ninjas)
Doubled over with another hacking cough, Fidel Dobes turned away from his 1402 punchcard reader. (We Interrupt This Broadcast)
Watching his mother kneel awkwardly in her rented space suit, Aaron worried his lower lip inside his own helmet. (Rockets Red)
Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. (The Lady Astronaut of Mars)
Is anyone else thinking the same thing I am after reading all of these: wow, these are…underwhelming? I’ve read every one of these stories–and liked them a lot–and yet very few of these seem all that spectacular.
A large portion of them simply describe an image: the sun through the leaves or blind-slats. A person in a pose or engaged in a minor movement. Only two begin with more than casual energy; the keys dropping to the floor and the character coughing violently.
Not one begins in anything typically considered in medias res. There are no explosions or gunfire, no fistfights, no crashes–nothing jarring at all, for the most part.
And yet nearly all of them begin in the middle of something. Most of them present an image that sets the stage, dangling a little tidbit sufficiently unusual or out of place to make the reader read the next line to see if it sheds light on the “out of place” detail:
The sun angles across the counter in spite of someone having lowered the blind. Why?
Why does this person have her hand buried in someone’s innards, and why are VR goggles involed?
Why are we talking about a clockwork chickadee (let’s face it, those two words alone are all the hook the story needs)?
Why is the writer stealing the beginning of “The Wizard of Oz”?
Why did the guy drop his keys?
All of these first lines, whether unremarkable or not, are designed to make the reader want to read the second line, which is usually designed to raise more questions than it answers.
Studying these first lines is a relief, in a way. This is an award-winning writer, and yet her hooks are not overtly phenomenal. They’re not what I would normally think of when someone tells me my first lines really need to grab the reader. We don’t need to spend a lot of time crafting the perfect opening line that would make Hemingway or Bradbury weep at the sheer beauty.
But we do need to pluck the reader’s mental guitar strings. We need to make them ask questions. We need to present them a vivid image to grab onto and explore further. We need to make them wonder what is going on–without scaring them off with sheer unfamiliarity (An opening line like, “Flarren zigged the gormlesh with the capachegger” probably isn’t going to invite the reader to continue–it’s just too much unusual in one go).
I think, though, that too often we get he feeling that our readers need to be dragged into our stories against their wills, and I don’t think that’s the case. If they’re picking up a story they’re wanting it to be good. They’re wanting it to get their attention. It won’t need the absolute perfect lure to do so, just an opening line that gives them a little spark of imagery and mystery enough to move on to the next line and the next.
It’s not easy to provide that, but it’s probably not as hard as we’re made to think.