“A good first line doesn’t invite the reader to read; it invites the writer to write.” — Antonya Nelson.
In the September 2010 issue of The Writer magazine, Sarah Anne Johnson interviews Antonya Nelson about the art of writing fiction–short stories as well as novels. I love the interview with the insights offered by Nelson and the honesty in her answers. “I am plot-impaired…” she says when discussing her preference of short stories over novel writing. A response like that from a great author helps me accept my own flaws as a writer without giving up on the craft.
The whole interview offers much for me, a writer on the rise. But, Nelson’s answer, as quoted above, to a question about good openings in fiction impressed me the most. Often we hear that the first chapter, first paragraph, or first line of a story must capture the reader right away and drive the reader to turn the page. Nelson puts the focus of the first line back onto the writer when she suggests that a great opening gets the writer moving.
Many times when I sit down to write, a whole story unfolds based on one line that repeats itself in my mind until I concede to write it down. In one of my Wednesday’s Word flash pieces, Camaraderie, Whether You Want It or Not, it wasn’t the word of the day that sparked the story; it was the opening passage: I had only been gone for three weeks.
As Margaret Atwood said, “A word after a word after a word is power.” A great first line can inspire a second line and then a whole story.
When I took a class with Ariel Gore, one of the exercises she gave us, as a warm up to a weekly writing assignment, was to pull out our favorite book, choose a chapter, and use the first line from that chapter as the beginning of our quick write. My response to the exercise was based on the first line from a chapter in Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone:
In the wake of my self-disclosure about Ma and Jack — during the year or so that followed my discovery — Dr. Shaw and I turned over and studied who my mother really had been: a fragile woman, a victim in many ways — of her mother, her husband.
From that first line, I wrote my opening:
Dr. Shaw invited me to take a look at my mother, if only to take the heat off of me for a while.
The short piece that followed was later published in the anthology of quick writes that culminated from that class, On the Fly: Stories in Eight Minutes or Less.
The same experience happened in writing the first draft of my novel. The opening line came to me, and it was all I needed for the story to unfold.
What are some first lines that propelled you into a new story?
Johnson, Sarah Anne. “A Gift for the Short Form” The Writer. September 2010: 17-20. Print.