First Lines Propel the Story AND the Writer

“A good first line doesn’t invite the reader to read; it invites the writer to write.” — Antonya Nelson.

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.



8 responses to “First Lines Propel the Story AND the Writer

  1. Christi, I adore this post! It has made me revisit a story in progress that has this as the first line (well, first three lines):

    “I turned fourteen the summer of 1976, the summer the church burned down and the hired hand came and Mother left. Not in that order. I didn’t realize the order was important until much later.”

  2. I made one last momentous change to my manuscript. I moved chapter 3 to chapter 1 spot. I really didn’t think it would work. I should have tried it sooner. Yes, it would have sparked much enthusiasm in my writing had I put it there in the first place so long ago. This change put the most dynamic sentence the first line of the first chapter. Yes, writing tension into the very first line is a winning ploy. Thank you for sharing.

    • Funny how that works, Carol. I wonder sometimes why we writers are so resistant to rearranging chapters. Thanks for sharing your experience — for the next time I question my own first chapter.

  3. This issue just came yesterday, but I haven’t had time to look at it yet. Wow, first lines. Sometimes I get a great one, but no story. Other times, it’s the opposite. Here’s two that are working for me:

    In the photograph, she looked completely sane.
    <Nothing good would come from hating his father.

    Not as good as Lisa’s, but something.

  4. Oh, I love both of those, Linda, especially “Nothing good would come from hating his father.” There’s a lot of energy in that first line.

  5. Great post, Christi. I had an entire novel emerge out of a first line that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. In the final draft, it’s no longer the first line, but it remains, unchanged, in the first chapter.

    All the lines in the comments are intriguing and clearly they would drive the writer to write, as well as hooking the reader.

    • Thanks for sharing that experience, Cathryn. I think that must be exactly the kind of power in the first line that Nelson talks about: it’s a catalyst, even if it doesn’t stay at the beginning.

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