Thursday Three: First Lines

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“Call me Ishmael.” – Moby Dick by Herman Melville

There is something compelling about this line, isn’t there?  Something mysterious – invitational, yet intrusive.  These three small, but powerful words are still considered to be the most well-known opening lines in literature, and in honor of my first post, I thought it might be relevant to focus on first-liners myself.  Much like when meeting new people or going someplace new, a story’s first impression is always important (and writers know how challenging this can be).  There are several ways to begin a story, and my guess is that it will probably require more than only three words, but you never know!  The length of the sentence really does not matter, but the goal is to draw in and orient your reader.

Some of my favorite ways to do this include:

  1. Set a time and place – This seems simple, right? What better way to anchor a reader than inviting them into the scene with your character?  Well, there’s a little more to it than that.  You want to be sure that the setting is a logical place for your character.  You wouldn’t set The Incredible Hulk in an elementary school in Amish town.  Nor would you set a Holocaust victim in the 1800’s, and this might all seem like common sense, but knowing every aspect of your character well enough to create the perfect setting for them is quite a challenge.

  2. Set a tone – What do you want the initial emotion of your reader to be?  Happy?  Intrigued? Depressed?  By setting the tone, you invite your reader to connect with your characters.  Here’s an example (and I’m just making this up): “The doctor called with my wife’s diagnosis today.  She has cervical cancer.  Or was it rectal?”  By not remembering such striking information, the reader is already made aware of the disconnect between the husband and his wife.

  3. So simple, it’s exciting – This is personally one of my favorites.  It’s experimental and quite entertaining.  In fact, beginning a story this way is almost the opposite of the other two in that it withholds information from the reader.  It’s as if the narrator is playing a guessing game with the reader, similar to an I know something you don’t know type of mystery.  If you’ve ever read Toni Morrison (which I’m hoping you have), you’ll see what I mean by simple.  In The Bluest Eye, her first two lines are “Here is the house.  It is green and white.”  These lines are so simple that they intrigue the reader, leaving questions about the house, ultimately motivating the reader to continue on with the story.

With all that being said, I hope beginning stories becomes a little more enjoyable.  Since I’ve only covered three different ways, and there are certainly a whole lot more, feel free to visit Writer’s Digest for some other possibilities.

Happy Writing!

— Melissa Carrington, Assistant Blog Editor

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