The Writers Circle

creative writing community, craft and inspiration

Beginnings

Ah, as I write this post, I realize I’m starting “Beginnings” right after my post called “Finished”! Well, it’s appropriate, as one Writers Circle session ends and another starts, to have a discussion about first sentences.

Choosing the right first few words for your story can be agonizingly difficult. In journalism, opening lines are called “hooks”, literally intent on snagging the reader’s attention like a fish on a line. Coming up with the perfect starting sentence requires balancing many things – voice, point of view, scene setting, details of topic and circumstances, and much more. All this must be conveyed with just the right well chosen words, setting the stage for a reader to enter your narrative.

Here are the “100 Best First Lines from Novels” as assessed and compiled by the American Book Review. It’s a fascinating study not only of good beginnings, but of the many unique ways a story can start, from entering the inner life of the narrator to listening to a self-conscious author announce his or her book.

The brilliance of these initial lines is in their titillation, telling us just enough, even if most lines tell us almost nothing. Note the length of sentences – a few simple words played like precisely struck notes, or a paragraph-long sentence that somehow coalesces without confusing.

Call me Ishmael.

Call me Ishmael.

I challenge you to look at your opening lines and ask yourself if they pinpoint precisely the story you plan to tell. Do they take you immediately into the moment of your work, or do they meander, wondering where the story really begins? Does your narrative voice beg the reader to listen, almost breathing the personality of the character who speaks? It’s very tricky and takes a shocking amount of honing.

Don’t be satisfied simply with whatever first comes out. Sit with it for a moment and think about what the words do or don’t say. Then draft the story and return to those first lines again. Do it over and over as your story evolves. More often than not, those original, beloved first words will completely transform with the unexpected progress of your work. Sometimes you’ll eliminate them completely.

So see where these lines take you, and try some yourself. Here’s to new beginnings.

About Judith

Judith Lindbergh's latest novel, Pasture of Heaven, is about a nomad woman warrior on the Central Asian steppes in the 5th century BCE. (And there really were!) Her first novel, The Thrall's Tale, is a literary historical novel about three women in the first Viking Age settlement in 10th century Greenland. The Thrall's Tale was a Booksense Pick and a Borders Original Voices selection. Judith is also the founder and director of The Writers Circle, a creative writing program offering workshops for children and adults.

7 comments on “Beginnings

  1. marcia
    June 17, 2009

    My own favorite first line is this, from Out of Africa: I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. It’s simple, but it works so very well aloud because of the f’s and the rolling sound of Ngong…and because it’s just a magical image.

    • Judith
      June 17, 2009

      Yes, that’s a great one. I agree: simply the idea of a farm in Africa, the sound of “Ngong Hills” and the past tense “had”, so that you know immediately that some really powerful story lies behind the implicit melancholy. Thanks, Marcia! Anyone else have a favorite to share?

  2. Eli Z
    June 18, 2009

    I am surprised that the first novel that I loved (Neuromancer, William Gibson’s – and cyberpunk’s – seminal work) is on that list. I’m also surprised they put a comma there, when there isn’t one. What I’m not surprised about is that you posted this link: you always have the best ones.

    “Under the port the sky was the color of a television tuned to a dead station.” I read that first line and I didn’t sleep until I read the last line. I still wonder at how a story about a virtual-reality hacker with an amphetamine addiction, a street samurai mercenary woman, a murdering artificial intelligence, the virtual ghost of a dead programmer and a family in suspended animation can be so true.

    Anyway, ta!

    • Judith
      June 18, 2009

      So glad you like my posts. I try to keep it interesting, and I’m always amazed at what I find (or more often at what comes to me from many of you).

      Yes, sometimes these virtual realities (whether sci-fi, cyberpunk, or simply more “mainstream” fiction) can capture truth in a way that reality never can. That’s the magic, the mystery, and the struggle for all of us writers.

      Keep at it!

  3. Chet
    June 20, 2009

    I was delighted to find my all time favorite “A screaming comes across the sky” right up there on the list. It is the perfect compliment and follow on to the title “Gravity’s Rainbow.” There was so much promise in those two sentences paired together.

    John Cheever’s short stories taught me the power of a strong first sentence. My copy of his stories is lost somewhere in the every sifting racks of books. I want to find it because so many of the stories are penciled over with comments on the first sentence.

  4. Eli Z
    July 7, 2009

    In the night the rooster’s call.
    In the day the raven.
    In due time comes for us all.
    In ferno in the haven.

  5. Sarah
    April 3, 2010

    Thanks so much for the link to the 100 best first lines!

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