The first line of any written work is of crucial importance. A zealous English teacher ingrained this belief in me over thirty years ago. The result of this presupposition is a special brand of writer’s block that precedes everything I compose. Long minutes, or sometimes hours, are wasted as I stare at my computer’s blinking cursor and wait for inspiration to arrive. I am waiting for the perfect opening sentence.
It never comes to me.
I might think of a good sentence, or I might settle for a lackluster one. But I never find the perfect one. After a while, whether my starting sentence is strong or weak, I give up and start writing – often skipping the beginning altogether and jumping to the middle of my tale. My intention is to craft a magnificent sentence later, which I will then graft in ahead of the rest of my prose. This allows me to plow ahead with my story, but has never resulted in an opening sentence that lives up to my hopeful expectations. I used this very technique to write this blog post, and as you can readily observe, my first sentence isn’t going to cause any excitement in literary circles.
I’m not saying that every first sentence I write is boring. (It might be true, but I’m not saying it.) It’s only that I keep hoping I have one great first line in me, one that will be remembered through the ages. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” “Call me Ishmael.” “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Everyone recognizes these first lines; they are part of our shared literary consciousness.
I often daydream that the perfect opener will be the key that unlocks a grand story hidden within me. That exceptional first sentence will inspire me to write something amazing, something so deep that readers will need to wear a life jacket to stay afloat. College classes will be taught around that one piece of writing alone, and it will be lauded throughout history as a pinnacle of literary achievement. (I said it was a daydream. Stop laughing.)
I recognize the magical thinking: the belief that if I can think of the perfect opening hook, then the story to follow will become imbued with the same mystical quality. This is a fallacy. Writing is work. Sometimes I feel satisfied after a good effort, and can imagine my reading audience enjoying my creation. Other times I merely feel tired. There are dreadful days where I realize that I have traded hours of my life for a handful of dull sentences. Whatever the outcome, the words do not appear by happenstance or good luck or the magical enchantment of a perfect first line. I have to sit down and write them.
It’s not enough to pen a catchy opening line. The words following it must live up to the expectation they create. If they don’t – well, then I suppose it won’t matter how wonderful the opening words are. They will be forgotten. Both are needed; a great opener and a great story to follow.
To avoid my daily dose of writer’s block I started using first line writing prompts to jump start my fiction writing. There’s nothing wrong with that per se; it keeps me writing each day and eradicates the wasted time spent wondering where to begin. Yet, I can’t help wondering if it is a bit like leaving training wheels on a bike too long. After a while those extra wheels start to get in the way. You need to take them off if you want to go anywhere fun.
What do you think – do you expect a book to grab you from the very first sentence? What type of opening line makes you want to keep reading?
As always, your comments are appreciated.
I think this one has been used already…