The Importance of the First Line

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Oh, no, what’s that behind you!?

Just kidding. This is an article about the importance of the first line of your story.

Nice to Meet Ya

Think of the first line of a story as shaking hands with someone you’ve just met. Have you ever shook hands with someone and thought their technique was bad? If not, you’re probably the person with the bad handshake. Some people have forgettable grips and should stick to waving meekly. Some people have death grips and use your hand like it’s a stress ball. These people have something to prove to themselves.

The first line of your story works the same way. You need to find that Goldilocks zone—not too much, not too little.

Here’s a weak handshake to a story about a newly vegan secret agent:

John looked walked down the dairy aisle, shrugged, and picked up a carton of almond milk.

Boring.

Compare the weak handshake to the too-strong handshake:

Vegan Agent John-XIII threw his quinoa salad in the faces of five top-ranking members of the Beef Brigade as they burst through the window. “I normally don’t hurt animals. But for you?” John cracked his knuckles. “For you, I’ll make an exception.”

Ok, I might read further on for this one. But that’s because it’s weird, not because it hooked me. For your story, find something that’s in the middle—something that makes the reader ask questions about your characters or plot without over- or underwhelming them.

Most of all, introduce your story to its readers with a good handshake. Make them glad they met. Ok, enough about handshakes.

Relax, Do It Later

The first line of a short story or novel is important, yes. Does this mean that once you decide to write something, the first step is to sit in front a blank page for hours or days, agonizing over the first line? No.

Write the first line as best as you can. But the story is more important, so start writing that. You’re going to rewrite much of your work in the second draft, and if you’re anything like me, the first line will be very different once you’re done.

Unless you’re the kind of writer who has every little detail plotted and planned out, the story in your head when you start and the story you end up with when you type “THE END” are not going to be the same thing. Once you know exactly what you’re writing about, reworking that first line will be an easier task.

You’re not going to blow the reader away with your first line. You’re going to at the most intrigue them and at the least, you should make them want to know more, or drop them in the middle of your story.

Check out the opening line of Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky:

I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man.

It’s a simple line, but it says so much about the character this book is about. It makes us ask questions: Why is he a sick, spiteful man? Why does he say this about himself?

Aim for the same result in your opening line. Hook the reader, strap them in, and all you have to do after that is make sure they get a good ride.

And never stop writing.

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About Author

John Paul Schmidt is a former news journalist. Now he's a freelancer by day and bartender by night while he works on his novel.

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