Opening Lines As First Impression
May 25, 2020 § 10 Comments
By Josh Sippie
It’s hard to argue that the whole “you only get one chance to make a first impression” logic doesn’t also apply to writing. The first line of a narrative is the first foray into the voice of the author, the creativeness, the style, the everything. If that isn’t on par with what you, the reader, are looking for, then what’s leading you to believe that the rest of the narrative will change? For that matter, why should you give it the chance to change when there are so many other options out there to consume?
So what makes an interesting first line? Let’s take a look.
Take, for instance, the first line of The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls.
“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster.”
Simple, but enticing, no? There is no throat clearing, no preamble, no walk-up, nothing hokey about it. The story begins in the very first sentence. If you plant their feet in the story in the first line then the only reason they will leave before the next sentence is if they just don’t like your voice, your style, your story. And you know what they say—don’t write for everyone. Because you’ll never please them all.
Give your reader the story immediately. If that means starting in the middle of action, like watching your mom root through a dumpster, great. Start there. The story is already in motion and the reader is now part of it. They’re asking themselves all kinds of questions: What was Jeanette doing that evening? Why was her mother in the dumpster? What was she looking for?
Or, if you don’t want to start in the middle of the action, try introducing conflict. Take Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find for example.
“The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.”
Why not? What grandmother? Why doesn’t she have a name?
Or try intrigue, like in I’m The One Who Got Away by Andrea Jarrell.
“Susannah was murdered just before Christmas but I didn’t find out until after New Year’s.”
Who is Susannah? How was she murdered? Why didn’t Andrea know?
What do all of these beginnings have in common? The reader is asking questions. If they are asking questions after the first line, they will be curious enough to try the second. If you force them to ask questions—good questions, mind you—they will seek out the answers.
That’s not the only method, though it’s a great place to start. You might also try poking their emotions. You only have one sentence, so don’t try to drop the weight of the world on their shoulders all in one fell swoop, but giving them a prod to make them smile or worry or feel empathy towards the protagonist is another way to ensure that the first line does its job.
One of the best examples comes from Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind Of Girl.
“When I was nine, I wrote a vow of celibacy on a piece of paper and ate it.”
Are you smiling? Because I am, and this isn’t the first time I’ve read that line. If you can get a genuine smile from the reader with one line, they are going to trust you for more smiles in the lines and pages to come.
Maybe you’re not writing a smiley piece, though. Cory Taylor wasn’t in his Memoir (and the title should give the tone away) Dying: A Memoir. But his first line does the trick:
“About two years ago I bought a euthanasia drug online from China.”
Worried yet? (It also makes them ask questions, but we’re past that part.)
Both Dunham and Taylor accomplished the same thing in their first line with very different tactics. They poke the reader’s emotions. And since both stories are marketed to the right audience, that effective poke is what made their entire story so effective.
The tried and true method, no matter the approach, is to think like the reader. When you go to read an essay, or pick up a memoir, or a poem, or an article—what do you look for? You look for intrigue, emotion, adventure. You want to ask questions and have them answered. You want your emotions to be poked and prodded and taken for a ride.
Do the same for your readers. Get them to ask questions that they then seek the answer to, or get them to feel something that they want more of—that’s how to ensure they get to sentence No. 2.
Josh Sippie is the Director of Conferences and Contests at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, where he also teaches. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Writer Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, and more. When not writing, he can be found wondering why he isn’t writing. Twitter @sippenator101, more at joshsippie.com.