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Three Ways In: Tips on Writing First Lines

Three First Lines:

1) “I am convinced that my father looked at me, really saw me, only once.”

2) “People were telling one another that a newcomer had been seen on the promenade–a lady with a dog.”

3) “Before I met Tim–who, in spite of everything I’m about to tell you, would be my best friend for the next four or five years–my mother warned me on the way over to his grandmother’s house that I had to be nice to him.”

These first lines don’t tell you everything. No journalistic “who, what, where, why and when.” Fiction doesn’t have to provide answers. Instead, it must stimulate questions, in the reader. We read fiction to raise our blood pressure . . . which in turn makes us more relaxed, much the way cardiovascular exercise raises our heart rate in order to make our hearts healthy. Okay, not sure the metaphoric equation works, but you get the idea. I hope.

It just strikes me as funny that there is a tension involved in reading–good reading–but there is nothing more relaxing than being caught in the grip of a great novel or story, unable to stop reading. It feels so active, this kind of reading, so involving, and yet there’s the ol’ body, lying in bed, the book propped on pillow or chest . . .

But that’s the middle. In the beginning, we’re more tentative. We pick up the book and know we might put it down again. We’re starting a relationship with this new story, and we don’t know if we like it, if we care what happens in it, if we’re going to go the distance.

We read, “I am convinced that my father looked at me, really saw me, only once.” (Alice Munro, “Face,” The New Yorker, Sept. 8, 2008, p. 59.) What? Here’s a shocking claim. All we know about the person making the claim is that he (as will prove to be the case here) is “convinced.” Certain. And that his father, if he is right, only looked at him, in the sense of really seeing him, one time. That suggests conflict. Two characters not meeting each other’s needs, locked into a relationship of high need. It’s a brash statement that goes against basic expectations of the parent-child relationship.

Try writing a strong, shocking claim like this that turns a socially-given relationship on its head.

[For two more examples and some thoughts on imitation plus other blogs, please visit my web site:


Thanks! Elizabeth]

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Awhile ago I posted a blog piece on my RedRoom blog about a technique I use to get the first line/paragraph out that comes from my days as a journalist.

I agree with your idea that the first bits of a novel don't have to be like a journalist's story lede, but they do need to capture the reader, which can be a very tricky thing to do and one that I think only a handful of writers really have mastered.

The very best example of a good intro is Steinbeck's "Cannery Row." I read it every now and again to get inspired by what the possibilities can be for introducing a reader to a story.