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Finding Your Beginning in “The End”: Is Writing the Perfect First Line Really a Big Deal?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

At the end of the previous post, I posed a few questions:

  • Why are first lines more memorable than last lines?
  • Are first lines more important than last lines?
  • Why are there so many more books, articles, blog posts, etc., published about writing first lines/openings than there are about writing last lines/endings?
  • What’s your favorite last line of a book?

The truth of the matter is, first lines are more easily recognizable, more easily remembered, and, possibly, make a greater impact than last lines. Why?

Well, there’s probably a PhD dissertation to be written on that question. Part of it, I believe, is because it’s the first impression a book makes. A first impression is generally better remembered. Another part is because of our “blurb” or “soundbite” mentality—how can I recognize and/or remember something in the fewest words possible? Another part may be our literature teachers’/professors’ penchant for making a big deal out of studying the opening lines of the works they teach. And, finally, I think part of it is that most of us haven’t actually read most classic literature all the way through, so we’ve never actually read the last lines of most of them. 😉

What’s the Big Deal about First Lines?
According to Sol Stein in Stein on Writing, there are three goals that the opening of a story or novel must meet:

  • To excite the reader’s curiosity, preferably about a character or a relationship.
  • To introduce a setting.
  • To lend resonance to the story.

In Hooked, Les Edgerton takes it one step further with four goals for a story or novel’s opening:

  • To successfully introduce the story-worthy problem.
  • To hook the readers.
  • To establish the rules of the story.
  • To forecast the ending of the story.

How much more time and effort is given to the study and practice of “crafting the perfect opening” of our novels? After all, not only must we intrigue readers with it, our first few opening lines may be all that our dream agent or editor might ever read. It’s drilled into our heads over and over and over and over that we must make a good first impression by writing the perfect opening line/paragraph/page.

And there is a lot that hangs in the balance that means we should spend time and energy on crafting our opening lines.

The question becomes WHEN should we spend the time on our openings?

No matter how carefully you have the project planned, first chapters tend to demand rewriting. Things happen. New ideas suggest themselves, new possibilities intrude. Slow to catch on, I collected a manila folder full of perfect, polished, exactly right, pear-shaped first chapters before I learned this lesson. Their only flaw is that they don’t fit the book I finally wrote. Thus Hillerman’s First Law: Never polish the first chapter until the last chapter is written.

–Tony Hillerman, quoted in The Writer magazine, May 2007

In other (my) words:

Don’t spend time trying to craft “the perfect first line” (or first page or first chapter) until you’ve finished writing your first draft!

When you’re writing your story, what’s more important: Worrying about making your opening “perfect,” or actually writing your first draft?

I know you know what the “right” answer to that question is—and we’re going to look at why finishing the first draft is important to creating a great opening throughout this series.

But first, let’s talk about those openings.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it until the day I die: The only thing you can’t fix is a blank page. Which, if you think about it, really isn’t true—you can fix a blank page by writing on it! Once you do start filling that blank page, just write. Let the ideas for your opening scene(s) flow organically. Don’t force anything. And, yes, give yourself permission to write more than one opening scene. Play with it. Write the opening from your different viewpoint characters’ POVs.

But as you’re writing your opening, don’t think about the opening—think about where the story is going. If you’re writing a romance novel, is your opening setting up the happy ending to come? If it’s a mystery, are you dropping hints and clues that will lead to the final reveal at the end of the book?

Key Components of Opening Scenes
Here are some things you should focus on as you’re crafting your opening scenes:

  • Characters
  • Immediate conflict—make your character want something
  • Promise of what’s to come
  • Emotional resonance—readers need to care in order to continue reading
  • Clear, understandable, but not overwhelming story world

You also want to focus on grounding your reader into the story world right off the top by using specific details and all five senses, anchoring your story in concrete reality (a specific time, a specific day, a specific action—shown, not told), and using details that are unique to your characters and setting.

Don’t have your characters who live in Nashville meet at Starbucks for coffee—send them to Fido’s or The Frothy Monkey instead.

Use your knowledge and experience to bring unique details to your characters and settings—don’t go for the most obvious choice (Starbucks) but do some research and make your storyworld and, by extension, your characters unique, specific, and layered. Doing this will ensure that you’re not imitating others but that you’re finding your own individual style and technique.

But above all else when it comes to writing effective opening scenes: Don’t write what you would find boring to read in someone else’s book!

For Discussion:
In reviewing your current opening scene, does it meet Stein’s three or Edgerton’s four goals?

What about your opening is unique—what in it tells the reader who you are as a writer?

Have you spent so much time trying to make your opening fabulous that you’ve forgotten that there’s “the rest” of the story to write?

Tomorrow: Building your reader’s trust by avoiding common pitfalls in your opening scene.

Works Cited:

Edgerton, Les. Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2007. Print.

Stein, Sol. Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Print.

  1. Tuesday, October 28, 2014 9:36 am

    Here are the answers to yesterday’s first line/last line/book title matching game:

    First Line: 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.
    Last Line: It is a far, far, better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far, better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.
    Book: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

    First Line: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
    Last Line: “…I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it.”
    Book: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

    First Line:It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
    Last Line: He loved Big Brother.
    Book: 1984 by George Orwell

    First Line: I am by birth a Genevese, and my family is one of the most distinguished of that republic.
    Last Line: He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.
    Book: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

    First Line: Call me Ishmael.
    Last Line: Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.
    Book: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

    First Line: All children, except one, grow up.
    Last Line: When Margaret grows up she will have a daughter, who is to be Peter’s mother in turn; and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.
    Book: Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

    First Line: Left Munich at 8:35 P.M., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late.
    Last Line: And, to our bitter grief, with a smile and in silence, he died, a gallant gentleman.
    Book: Dracula by Bram Stoker

    First Line: You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.
    Last Line: But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.
    Book: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

    First Line: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
    Last Line: …they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them.
    Book: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

    First Line: Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.
    Last Line: “Home. I’ll go home, and I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.”
    Book: Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell


  2. Laura permalink
    Tuesday, October 28, 2014 6:48 pm

    I just loved that post. My brain was turning and twirling over every sentence, applying it to my finished manuscript, as well as the one I’ve just started. It made me re-think my process but it also confirmed why I’ve become a little stuck on my first chapter of my newest endeavour. I’ve written the beginning five times in the last month from different POV’s and even switching between first and third person. I’m going to try to leave it now and move on, knowing that I’ll come back and edit it properly once the entire story is written. Thanks for posting!


    • Tuesday, October 28, 2014 7:15 pm

      I used to consider myself the world’s worst at writing openings—mainly because I always had to go back and cut at least one scene, if not a whole chapter and rewrite everything. But a lot of that came from discovering more (and more interesting) things about the story and characters as I wrote through the middle to the end that I wanted to set up better in the beginning. Plus a lot of what I start out writing is really just the boring stuff. But it gets me going with words on the page and some kind of direction.

      Good luck with your new story!!!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Tuesday, October 28, 2014 11:18 pm

    Thanks Kaye! I know exactly what you mean when you say the ‘boring’ bits at the beginning. I’m only just starting to see my beginnings with fresh eyes. I just had my finished manuscript looked at and there were a lot of tips focused on tightening my start. Now, when I read it, I feel like I can see where I’ve gone wrong. It has meant I’ve been a bit too obsessed with Chapter 1 of my second story though. Time to heave ho and get moving on the middle now I think.


    • Wednesday, October 29, 2014 8:23 am

      My best (most intense) experience with figuring out my opening was boring and I needed to cut almost a full chapter was with what I thought was the final draft of my master’s thesis novel (published later as Stand-In Groom) when I had to choose an excerpt for a 20-minute reading at my thesis defense.

      When I started reading my opening chapter aloud to practice it, I realized that *I* was bored with it, and it was my story and characters! I ended up choosing a reading from closer to the middle—when an important plot point is revealed—and I got a great response from the room full of faculty and other students. So I knew I’d chosen the right passage to read.

      And then, after graduation and spending a few weeks reveling in that dream realized, I sat down and chopped off the first chapter and rewrote the opening. Looking back on it now, I think it still drags a bit, but at least I know it’s better than it was!

      But with every manuscript after that, as I’ve written and later revised my opening chapter, I’ve approached it with the question of whether or not I’d choose it to read in front of an audience of peers and mentors—if it’s intriguing and interesting and fast-flowing enough to capture and keep the attention of 50 people staring back at me as I read it.



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