I don’t think I’m alone in my terror of the blank page. Whether I’m writing a story, a novel, an essay, or even a blog post, my mind freezes when I see the cursor just sitting there, blinking, waiting for me to start.
I think first lines in fiction are especially difficult. There are so many classic first lines that are quoted by many people who haven’t even read the book. These lines are witty, deep, and engaging, and they set the tone for the entire book. Some opening lines that come to mind:
- “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” –Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin
- “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” –A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
- “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” –Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
- “Call me Ishmael.” –Moby Dick by Herman Melville
- “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” –The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
On the one hand, I’m amazed at the complexity of some, how they make a sweeping statement about the nature of humanity. On the other, I’m blown away by the simplicity that Melville and Tolkien open with, a simplicity that is nevertheless engaging.
When it comes to writing my own opening lines, I usually skip them and put [AMAZING FIRST LINE HERE] instead. Nothing gets more revised than my opening paragraphs, especially that first line. It’s so important, especially in a submission to a major publication, an agent, or a publisher. If the person reading it isn't engaged by line one, they might not go onto line two. It must set the tone, began to establish character, plot, setting…that’s a lot. Even if it doesn't address all of these specifically, it must set up the following lines to do that.
For my first lines, when I finally make myself write them, I tend to pick something to focus on, such as character, setting, or plot. Then, I zoom in on the most interesting image or aspect of that element. For example, the first line of The Thunderbird Project is: "Bleeding wasn't something Jupiter normally did." Of the opening scenario of her being hunted by unmarked tanks, I decided to focus on what I thought was most interesting: she doesn't hurt easily, implying that this was a big deal and she's scared out of her mind.
I’ve found that simple works better, as not to confuse the reader. And when I’m stressing over revisions, convinced that I’ve written The Most Terrible Opening Line Ever, I remind myself that, at its core, the first line has only one job: make the audience read the second line.